Questions about NASA discovery of 54 “habitable” planets

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For Star Trek fans, the idea of finding dozens of planets capable of supporting advanced life forms excites the imagination.

                        Kepler-11 planetary system (NASA/Tim Pyle)

NASA’s Kepler mission recently discovered its first Earth-size planet candidates and its first candidates in the “habitable zone,” a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface.

“The fact that we’ve found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy,” said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone, some of which could have moons with liquid water.”

The fact that these planets may contain water raises the prospect they could contain bacterial life – or even more advanced life forms. But one Christian astrophysicist is skeptical of reading too much into NASA’s announcement.

“Habitable zone is a bit of an overstatement,” says Hugh Ross Ph.D., the founder of Reasons to Believe. Dr. Ross explains that planets have previously been discovered that contain water – too much water. “They have 500 to 1,000 times as much water as Earth,” he notes. “When you have that much water, you don’t get continents above sea level.”

For habitability, many more features are required beyond liquid surface water according to Dr. Ross: plate tectonics, continents and oceans at the right depth, and a strong, long-lasting magnetic field, to name just a few.

The other problem with many of the planets is that they contain 2,000 times more surface carbon than Earth. “Life is carbon-based, but too much carbon gives you a very thick atmosphere that traps too much heat from a planet’s star. That makes conditions on the surface impossible for life, even primitive life.”

Dr. Ross predicts that astronomers may soon discover 10,000 Earth-like planets, but none will have the conditions necessary to produce advanced life. He cites the book “Rare Earth,” written by an atheist astronomer and paleontologist, which concludes there may be planets with the capacity to support bacterial life, but planets with the capacity to support advanced life will be rare or non-existent.

“I can’t see any theological reason for God to make two Earths,” Dr. Ross declares. “One is adequate.”

Moreover, he cites the Book of Hebrews, which states that Jesus Christ died one time, in one place, for all mankind. “Technically, that doesn’t rule out grass on another planet, but it does rule out the equivalent of human life.”

Dr. Ross has calculated the probability of finding a planet with the capacity to support advanced life — without invoking divine miracles. “Even if the universe contained 10 billion trillion planets (a highly optimistic number), the probability is still less than one in 10 to the 1050th power.”

To put that into context, the total number of protons and neutrons in the universe is 10 to the 79th power. “It’s equivalent to you winning the California lottery 140 consecutive times if you only buy one ticket at a time,” he says.

Finding another planet like Earth with advanced life forms seems highly improbable, and the features that make Earth so attractive are extremely rare. “It’s got to be a miracle,” Dr. Ross says, “The evidence gets a million times stronger each month that you need a supernatural creator. I tell the skeptics if you’re not convinced today, wait a month.”