When asked to visualise alien life most people would think of small grey bug-eyed beings with arms and legs. This anthropomorphic and banal image of extra terrestrial life has been played out numerous times throughout the history of science fiction. In Star Trek all it takes to make an alien is a bit of putty and a few dots strategically placed next to their eyes.
This is why I have chosen to depict a 'Mimoid' from Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel Solaris. Of all the science fiction I have read I think Lem gets more to the heart of what alien life could be like. The being in Lem's novel, the giant omnipotent sea, creates vast structures which are stimulated by psychology of the characters in the book. Of course this kind of being is completely absurd and very unlikely to exist, but it is the fact he wrote about a being so beyond our comprehension and scale which sets him apart from other science fiction writers who describe their creatures almost as human as us.
Considering Earth is our only reference point to living things at this present time it is natural to project ideas about life on to the worlds out in space. Further research is made into the hostile terrains of our own planet where very simple life manages to eek out an existence in the most unlikely of places. Relating the extreme conditions found on Earth to extreme conditions found in space means exciting possibilities have opened up for the discovery of alien microbial life. Not quite the walking, babbling, ray-gun wielding creatures dreamt up in sci-fi but it's a small and incredibly exciting start to this grand quest to find our cosmic community.
Jupiter's moon Europa has excited astrobiologists ever since it's surface has been observed in increasingly closer detail. It's etched with mysterious red markings and a pattern of cross hatched cracks cover vast expanses of the icy outer shell. Studies on Earth claim that life can exist and flourish inside ice. Not just in suspended animation but continually cell-dividing and reproducing. The implications of this discovery is what make Europ'a surface crust so intriguing. According to NASA scientist Richard Hoover the wide variety of colours on the surface are highly suggestive of microbial life and there is a “very strong possibility that the ice of Europa may contain viable living micro-organisms.” This means the evidence of extra terrestrial life could already be in our own solar system. And cosmically, that's right on our doorstep.
Not only has the surface of Europa got enormous potential for harbouring life but underneath the shell sits another incredible cosmic find. Most planetary scientists believe that a layer of liquid water exists beneath Europa's icy surface that stretches an enormous 100 kilometres deep and covers the entire moon. This means there is twice as much potentially life-sustaining water on Europa than found on Earth.
Perhaps like the laws of physics, the laws of biology are also universal. This would mean that life arises using the same chemistry set all over the universe. Or perhaps, one could speculate an entity like Lem's Solaris where our Earth reference point diminishes and becomes something extraordinary.
“Extremophiles” Universe Today. April 6, 2010 http://www.universetoday.com/61457/extremophiles/
"Astrobiology in Space Exploration Missions". NASA Astrobiology. April 29, 2010 http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/missions/
"Phoenix Mars Mission". University of Arizona. April 29, 2010 http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/mission.php
Wonders of the Solar System: Aliens. (2009) BBC
Cosmos: Encyclopedia Galactica. (1978) Sagan, Druyan & Soter