The existence of life depends on many things. And as past extinctions on Earth have taught us, when one species is snuffed out, the opportunity arises for another to be snuffed in. It's all relative—one entity's bad luck is something else's good luck, because as the aphorism goes, every time God shuts a cellar, he opens a porthole and one of those slatted attic vents from '80s movies ... 

New Habitable Zones Are Constantly Becoming Available

One of the primary deciders of existence is the type of star that a planet, or the equivalent of an out-of-gas space-Winnebago, finds itself orbiting. Our Sun is currently a main sequence star, meaning it's stable, has plenty of hydrogen to fuse, and harbors only the faintest inkling of melting us all into a calcium-rich goop with its radioactive flares.

It'll spend 80% of its 10 billion-year lifespan this way, happily clocking in every morning with its vintage metal lunch box of bologna and Schlitz. But since Sol is already 4.5-billion-years-old, it will become 10% brighter and start boiling our oceans in about a billion years. Our star has already "burned" off the equivalent of Saturn from its mass, making it the ultimate before-and-after-picture contender in early morning infomercials for the newest SlimFast (now with shellac!) or vibrating ass-belts that promise a toned pelvic floor.

Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

“Get summer-shredded abs with this one trick they don’t want you to know about!!”

The Sun loses its weight a bit at a time, turning four hydrogens into one helium. By squeezing four grams of hydrogen into helium, less than 1% of that becomes energy. But that's still enough to power a lightbulb for 100 years. And four grams is a trifling amount; decent for a Backwoods, but underwhelming for a B Legit

Toward the end of its reign, the Sun will become a red giant, puffing up like a post-retirement running back or a pre-retirement sumo wrestler. It will dwarf its younger self and sterilize the inner solar system while totally engulfing Mercury, Venus, and maybe Earth.

Oona Räisänen/Wikimedia Commons

Finally, no more cold-in-the-middle burritos! 

At this point, at least 5 billion years from now, we may be long dead or long evolved into ultra-intelligent energy beings that reproduce through plasma tendrils or backflips. Hopefully, we'll have gotten off Earth by then. Maybe we'll have turned Mars into the verdant man-paradise envisioned by misogynistic (i.e., all of them, even the women) mid-20th-century science-fiction writers. 

Another solution is to move the Earth itself. Possibly via some big rocket thrusters or a giant magnet pointed at Mercury, the latter being posited by theoretical physicist W.E. Coyote. Alternatively, the world's strongest powerlifters could simultaneously perform a squat while facing away from the Sun. 

Or our descendants could move long before doomsday. Possibly building some sort of station, for example, out in space, which could presumably be called a Space Station, to follow the shifting habitable zone. Even better, a fleeing or dying species could guarantee its posterity by sending genetic instructions for flora and fauna to distant cosmic corners. Like space-age printing presses, "Gutenberg-DNA printers" would populate distant planets with copies of ourselves or whatever else we become. 

So when our former home looks like this:

Fsgregs/Wikimedia Commons

Its cleansed cinder will witness the blooming of other worlds, as the habitable zone extends farther into the solar system. 

Wendy Kenigsburg/NASA

It will warm the Jovian and Saturnian moons, which could already harbor life. The extra heat will boost those odds, creating nutrient-rich wetlands that make the Everglades resemble the Dust Bowl. Saturn's moon Titan could become even more Earth-like, with liquid oceans that contain water. Eventually, the thaw will reach Pluto and other dwarf planets beyond Neptune, turning them into tropical locales with Miami-like temperatures but a better high school graduation rate.

This scenario isn't limited to our solar system. Creeping habitable zones open up new opportunities for life across the entire universe, and a habitable red giant elsewhere may last nine billion years. And while I know you're expecting fancy rocket ships, don't be bemused if aliens pull up one day looking like this:

Library of Congress

“Heya, mister. God knows we’ve traveled awful far, and our Hudson could do with a new belt. Mightn’t we rest here a bit?” 

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There Are Sooo Many Dang Planets It's Silly To Think Nothing Else, However Primitive, Could Exist

Aliens, at least simple ones, most likely exist due to sheer force of volume. The number of planets just in our galaxy beggars description, imagination, and conjecture. There could be "1-to-10 trillion orbiting planets, total" amongst the Milky Way's 400 billion stars. Which isn't even crap yet, because there are more rogue planets that have no star and wander aimlessly in eternal blackness. These rogues "could be 10-to-10,000 times as numerous." 

In the entire universe, which contains about two trillion galaxies (according to some; others say fewer), "there are ~10^25 planets that orbit stars, with some ~10^26 to 10^30 additional starless planets." And that's a veritable bunch. 

How many of these planets are actually habitable? If we allow for inconceivable forms we can never hope to dream of, then probably every one of them? But that's no good, and the actual estimates change and range far and wide. Some say billions, bolstering the chance that jackal-and-ibis-headed sky-beings will soon descend to collect on our pyramid-building tab. 

Possibly the most detailed study yet, based on data from the Kepler and Gaia space telescopes, gives a more conservative estimate. The Milky Way may hold 300 million habitable planets, accounting for the suitable types of worlds and stars and the amount of light reaching those worlds. And I would definitely take those odds in video poker. 

Penn State also took a crack at measuring habitability. Their method is an early version of the "universe is a simulation" rationale. It uses actual data to simulate "universes" replete with stars and planets, then it "observes" each of those for viable planets that could harbor Gap stores. Overall, the results are promising. One in six stars may feature a world between 0.75 to 1.5 times the size of the Earth, with a habitable-zone orbit between 237 to 500 days long.

NASA

Good news, you’d still be in your 20s on the planet Xyzli-gork-blarp Prime 3b.

However, the rate could fluctuate between the not-so-narrowed-down figures of one planet per 33 stars and, more promisingly, one planet per two stars. One in 33 doesn't sound great, but in universal terms, it's plenty. Hitting your birthday on a roulette depends on luck, your mother's past ovulation schedule, or whether the scientists needed the test tube for the next embryo— but hitting that lucky number requires less luck if you're spinning a sextillion roulettes.

Lots Of Rocky, High-Gravity Worlds

Interestingly, almost 1,600 of the 5,017 exoplanets discovered as of... right now! are of a mouth-watering type: rocky worlds up to ten times more massive than the Earth. That's a lot of gravity. So aliens here will be utterly dissimilar to humans; they'll be wide, thick-legged, slow-moving, and piggly, like Gamorrean guards—Okay, so upon further consideration, not so dissimilar.

NASA

Maybe their progenitor astronauts will taste like ham instead of just being named after it.

And, as per some of us, they may be busier looking at their plodding feet than the free and mighty stars. Could a high-grav home planet delay their plans to get into space? Or would it inspire them to build more effective propulsion systems based on nuclear thrust or, perhaps, a very big slingshot? 

And hey, even some of the least hospitable places are currently inhabited

Dallol is a hydrothermal hotspot in Ethiopia's highly volcanic Danakil Depression. This Hadean murderscape seethes with bubbling mud, scorched sulfur, blue lava, and smoking pits that plunge down to Satan's rumpus room, where Mussolini and Mao play eternal foosball with the souls of Ponzi schemers.

Yet no combination of words from my chemical-drenched meatloaf can correctly convey its infernality. Behold: 

Kirill Trubitsyn/Shutterstock

And despair. If ya like.

It is 400 feet below sea level, ultra-toxic, saltier than a Sacramento Kings season-ticket-holder with a “2013 Champions” tattoo, and super-acidic with a pH of 0.25—about as acidic as battery acid or a jilted partner during the Downton Abbey dinner party you’ve been planning for a month.

The air-temp average here is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And the lethal, metal-saturated pools average more than 200. Yet this is a place where living things live. Granted, they’re tiny things, organisms twenty-times smaller than your run-of-the-mill bacteria. 

Gómez, Cavalazzi, et. al./Scientific Reports

Not that we’re trying to weight-shame normal bacteria.  You’re beautiful just the way you are, thiomargarita namibiensis.

Still amazing because Dallol is one of the most inhospitable places for life, second only to schools that serve sloppy Joes for breakfast.

Yet little creatures thrive in Dallol’s deadly pools, chimneys, and hell-pits. Intriguingly, this environment may be early Mars-like. And these organisms, 20 times smaller than normal bacteria, are potentially around the size of the supposed “microbes” seemingly found in a Martian meteorite over two decades ago. 

Now Wait Just A Darn-Falutin' Minute, A Martian Meteorite With “Microbes”!?

That meteorite is named ALH84001. It was blasted into space 16 million years ago after a cosmic collision rocked Mars. ALH spent most of the intervening time tumbling through the near-nothingness between orbs, not unlike a wanderer drifting between Burger King bathrooms on the freeway. Until circa 13,000 years ago, when Earth’s gravity captured it like online poker captured formerly “gifted” students that fizzled out after community college circa 2015. 

NASA

Quiet down, mom; Poker After Dark is on and Tom Dwan is check-raising with a 2-7 unsuited against Jennifer Harman’s pocket aces. 

Unfortunately, just-released science says there are no aliens in that rock. However, the water-rock interactions that shaped it are still responsible for making things that themselves could create life. So there’s still good hope for finding tiny things on Mars, whether alive or dead. 

Though even the life in Dallol is not agreed upon by scientists. Some say that life doesn’t exist in the most inhospitable pockets. Instead, the “thriving” lifeforms previously found here could have been wind-blown contamination from nearby areas—same as when you’re chatting up the lovely ladies at the Iguana and Gemstone Expo and someone in a “%@$& Communism!” shirt confusedly stumbles in while looking for the liquor store next door.

The Problem With Discovering Alien Life

You may be thinking, “Whatever, why mention such a minor footnote?” But here’s the point: if we can’t agree on this stuff on Earth, it may be exponentially tougher to agree on the existence of life elsewhere. Unless a squid-race lands on the village bowling green and extends us a friendly tentacle, the discovery of aliens may be very anticlimactic, very ambiguous, or very much both.

It’s possible there won’t be a grand moment of discovery or epiphany, just an argument over the presence of some obscure chemical no regular person has ever heard of, which may reveal an extraterrestrial’s flatulence. 

It may be debunked shortly thereafter. Like the supposed phosphine on Venus not long ago, which had heads spinning with images of Venusian jellyfish drifting through hazy orange clouds. But it turned out to be plain, stinky ol’ sulfur dioxide, no more mysterious than that worrisome, enigmatic stomach condition that one hour later outed itself as a dissident fart.

Also, should astronomers find ET, don’t expect something flashy. It may look less like this:

Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock

And a lot more like this:

NASA

Urrrrghhhhhhh, a graph!? Most people drop out of middle school because of graphs. Good luck, scientists.

Unfortunately, there may not be any great fanfare, ticker-tape parades, or any of the pomp and public drunkenness deserved by the greatest-ever scientific discovery of all time. 

And the likes of the tiny things of Dallol may be too insignificant for current detection if they exist on Mars or somewhere—tools may need to be a million times more delicate to detect such itty-bitties on other planets. 

More importantly, will people care? And for how long? Unless it’s causing their jock itch or thrush, the masses care not for obscure, potentially tiny organisms. Plus, look at other revelations. Every time an atrocity or injustice is discovered, even though it affects us personally and severely in the here and now, it’s quickly forgotten once the quad-stuffed Crap Compactor from Domino’s arrives just in time for NBC’s Thursday Big Night Visuo-Auditory Trash-Feast: Consume and Forget, Peons.

Top image: Jurik Peter

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