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Rob Sheldon: Are the seven new planets, three “habitable,” just hype? Read the fine print.

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This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.
artist’s impression of surface of TRAPPIST-1f/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Yesterday, NASA reported a record-breaking discovery of seven new Earth-size planets around a single star, three in the habitable zone:

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system [TRAPPIST-1]. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”More.

The planets are about forty light years from Earth, in Aquarius.

Our physics colour commentator Rob Sheldon offers,

The sun that they orbit is a brown dwarf. It puts out 0.04% of the heat that our own Sun does. In order to be in the “habitable zone” where water is liquid, they orbit at 0.01 AU from their sun, where Earth is 1AU and Mercury about 0.3 AU from our sun. A “year” on these planets is 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, 6 days for the inner few. They are so close to the “brown dwarf” sun that they experience huge tidal forces that force one side of the planet to stay facing their sun. They are also so close that they are exposed to all the “flare particles” released from magnetic activity, so it would suggest one side of each “planet” is scorched and radioactive, while the other side is figid and frozen. Not exactly hospitable.

They looked for signatures of Hydrogen and Helium and saw none, which suggests that none of the planets is a “gas giant” like Jupiter, and also none of them has an extended oxygen or CO2 atmosphere like Earth or Venus. Many such “solar systems” with “earthlike” planets around “brown dwarf” planets have been seen already, with little hope of life on them. But what makes this one special is that there are 7 such planets all strung out in a line. The “perhaps there’s life” is a red herring to make this newsworthy.

See also: Religion and ET: What’s wrong with science writing today

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30 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: Are the seven new planets, three “habitable,” just hype? Read the fine print.

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    The more planets they find, the greater the chances of some sort of extraterrestrial life. Yes, they are probably inhospitable environments at best but we have found life in inhospitable environments here on Earth. So the more liberally we find this galaxy is populated with planets the less the chance that we are the only life in this whole vast universe (or multiverse) (or holoverse).

  2. 2
    rvb8 says:

    It must be difficult with every new planetary discovery to reply with the same derision; ‘but where’s the life?’

    One thing we are increasingly becoming aware of, and that is that planetary objects are common as muck in the universe.

    The prediction that (probably) every star has something floating around it, made up of the debris of that star’s own formation, is becoming the accepted view. With every new discovery to back up this hypothesis, that planets are more common than the stars they orbit, the old Drake Equation takes on a life of its own.

    In late October 2018 the James Webb space telescope will be launched. This amazing collaboration will be able to photograph the planets themselves, and not necessarily the ones we have found already, but do its own far more rigorous search.

    This telescope will be able to detect, a wide range of elements, and compounds.

    Once again ID finds itself in that sticky position of being faced with evidence, and what’s more, mountains of mounting evidence. And, like in all good science stories, that evidence just won’t go away.

    ID is also faced with that familiar problem it brought upon itself with publications like ‘The Wedge’, and predictions of victory in court, of being on the completely wrong side of science, advancement, and history.

  3. 3
    Marfin says:

    Seversky and rvb8- Can you please cite the exact findings , not the hype , not the interpretation , just the evidence and lets just see what it says.

  4. 4
    Vy says:

    It must be difficult with every new planetary discovery to reply with the same derision; ‘but where’s the life?’

    If you imagine that is difficult then I can imagine how depressed the SETI believers must be after the hype of each new find is dashed to pieces by evidence and hopeful non-sequiturs like “[t]he more planets they find, the greater the chances of some sort of extraterrestrial life” are all that’s left.

  5. 5
    News says:

    Seversky and rvb8, finding new habitable planets that do not have life would, if anything, be an argument against there being life elsewhere.

    It is somewhat like finding hauntable houses that aren’t haunted, no?

    Or at least, if that’s not how the evidence should be taken, some further argument is necessary on the part of the proponents.

    Many of us think there is a bit of life out there but deplore the misleading hype, as it will do more harm than good.

  6. 6
    tjguy says:

    Seversky @1 says

    The more planets they find, the greater the chances of some sort of extraterrestrial life. …. So the more liberally we find this galaxy is populated with planets the less the chance that we are the only life in this whole vast universe (or multiverse) (or holoverse).

    Seversky, the only way this statement is true is if life evolved all on it’s own here on earth. So your argument is based on the assumption that life evolved by chance all on it’s own. It’s fine to believe whatever you want to believe, but just remember that it is nothing more than your belief at this point.

    If life did not evolve on this planet, or if it is not possible for life to evolve all on it’s own, then it doesn’t really matter how many planets you find. It’s irrelevant. Now we cannot prove that it did not evolve, so we cannot say for sure that it is impossible, but so far the evidence is mounting against it. It was easy for Darwin to believe in abiogenesis, but it is much more difficult for educated people in the 21st century to believe in that because we know so much more about life and the cell now than he did.

    You have to admit that the evolution of life might indeed be impossible or so highly improbable that it would not have occurred.

    Yes, they are probably inhospitable environments at best but we have found life in inhospitable environments here on Earth.

    It’s amazing to me that skeptics are so unskeptical of their own beliefs no matter how outrageous they seem. Our worldview and beliefs are indeed tightly held.

  7. 7
    ppolish says:

    “Habitable Exoplanets” and “Earthlike” stories are a dime a dozen. Man bites dog. A “goldilock zone” is generic enough that billions and billions of planets will qualify. Job security for those cataloging them.

    I’m wondering about Original Sin. Some believe that it is the first EARTHLY sin. Think that is the official Catholic view. There are planets with no sin (most) and maybe planets with sins that predate the “original.

    Confirming life away from earth is hard. Still searching our own solar system. Confirming life on a far far away solar system a bit tougher. But this Universe is scientifically confirmed fine-tuned for life. Incredibly fine-tuned for life. Science tells us so.

  8. 8
    Eric Anderson says:

    rvb8 @2:

    Once again ID finds itself in that sticky position of being faced with evidence, and what’s more, mountains of mounting evidence. And, like in all good science stories, that evidence just won’t go away.

    Why on earth would you think that finding habitable exoplanets or life on exoplanets would be a problem for ID?

    I, for one, have followed the search for exoplanets with great interest since the very beginning and much more closely than most. Finding a habitable (meaning for humans) exoplanet would be an important discovery. Finding life elsewhere in the galaxy would be most exciting.

    Your comments lead me to think perhaps you don’t quite understand ID.

  9. 9
    asauber says:

    The more planets they find, the greater the chances of some sort of extraterrestrial life.

    A scientific-minded person would put some numbers to this and calculate some probabilities.

    Yeah.

    Andrew

  10. 10
    john_a_designer says:

    rvb8: “Once again ID finds itself in that sticky position of being faced with evidence, and what’s more, mountains of mounting evidence. And, like in all good science stories, that evidence just won’t go away.”

    Eric Anderson: “Why on earth would you think that finding habitable exoplanets or life on exoplanets would be a problem for ID?

    I, for one, have followed the search for exoplanets with great interest since the very beginning and much more closely than most. Finding a habitable (meaning for humans) exoplanet would be an important discovery. Finding life elsewhere in the galaxy would be most exciting.”

    Same here. But apparently that doesn’t fit everyone’s stereotype.

    Watching someone play the gotcha game only to see them repeatedly swing and miss is kind of amusing at first, but then after a while it starts to become annoying.

  11. 11
    Eric Anderson says:

    john_a_designer @10:

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Which stereotype are you referring to? I’m trying to get people to focus on what ID is really about, rather than some stereotype they think it is about. The existence of life elsewhere in the universe presents no challenge to intelligent design. If someone, like rvb8, thinks it does, then it is clear they don’t understand intelligent design.

    In fact of point the existence of extraterrestrial life would provide essentially zero additional information about either naturalistic evolution or design. It simply isn’t relevant to the issues at hand.

    I am interested in astronomy, exoplanets, and astrobiology for their own scientific merits and for the thrill and benefit of discovery. We live in a unique age and there is much to be embraced and enjoyed in what we are now discovering.

    People who reject the idea of extraterrestrial life for whatever religious or philosophical preconceptions they have may find the concept threatening.

    But the discovery of extraterrestrial life won’t make one iota of difference to the evolution/design debate.

    Watching someone play the gotcha game only to see them repeatedly swing and miss is kind of amusing at first, but then after a while it starts to become annoying.

    I don’t know if you are referring to rvb8 or the media stories. Assuming the latter, I agree. It is annoying to see the modest, hard-won, incremental gains in scientific understanding get twisted into great pronouncements and what-if press releases. This is a general problem in the communication of science. And it becomes particularly problematic when additional factors beyond the search for truth come into play — factors such as career advancement or not-so-veiled calls for more funding to continue the study.

    It is easy to get cynical about the marketing/press side of the scientific endeavor, and I absolutely share your annoyance.

    But there is much good science being done in this area. Part of what we need to do — which we have been forced to become very good at in the evolution debate — is learn to read between the lines of the pronouncements and the press releases to understand the real results of the work.

  12. 12
    Eric Anderson says:

    BTW, Denyse (News) makes some good comments @5, with which I agree. Both with respect to the potential trajectory of the evidence, as well as the hype.

  13. 13
    john_a_designer says:

    Eric,

    By stereotype I mean people who conflate ID with young earth creationism or some kind of religious/theological doctrine.

    What I find annoying are critics who regularly show up on this site just to start baseless straw man “arguments.” It clearly shows they haven’t done their homework by doing things like reading the OP, understanding the comment to which they are responding, or reading, watching or listening to some of the many links that those of us who are interested in ID or related issues provide. I find that annoying especially when I learn they have been visiting this site for years. I don’t find people who are willfully ignorant to be interesting or persuasive, only annoying– a waste of time.

  14. 14
    Eric Anderson says:

    Thanks, john. I understand better what you were driving at. Agreed.

  15. 15
    rvb8 says:

    Fifity years ago the faithful were mocking the ‘many solar systems, vast universe theory’. Thirty years ago the faithful were mocking the ‘many planets theory’.

    Today, with ‘many planets’ accepted, the faithful are mocking the ‘habitable planet theory’.

    With the launch of the James Webb telescope next year, which will detect elements, complex organic molecules, and take pictures of the planets themselves, I suppose the faithful will mock the, ‘organic compounds point to life theory’.

    You are forever being backed into tighter, and tighter corners, and the funny thing is, you do it with eyes wide open.

    There is a picture taken from Voyager 1, from a distance somewhere around Neptune, just as it is leaving our tiny corner of the galactic neighbourhood.

    You can see this picture at Wikipedia, just enter ‘Pale Blue Dot’. It’s a picture that puts yours, mine, human histories’ and our squabbles, religions, dreams, and our endless childish confrontations into perspective.

    Its not a reassuring picture for the faithful, and their fantasies concerning their own importance. For me, as an atheist, it brings great pleasure and an incredibly warm feelng of belonging to creation.

    Again, don’t read the extensive rational quote from Carl Sagan. (He recommended to NASA that the Voyager space craft be turned to take the snap.) This quote will only make perfect sense, something I know that goes against the grain.

  16. 16
    OldArmy94 says:

    On the contrary, the discovery of life on another planet would only lend support to Intelligent Design.

  17. 17
    asauber says:

    For me, as an atheist, it brings great pleasure and an incredibly warm feelng of belonging to creation.

    rvb8,

    Aside from the typo, this is a great presentation of Atheist scientific thinking.

    Andrew

  18. 18

    Atheists have incredibly warm feelings?

  19. 19
    asauber says:

    rvb8,

    If you are going to be a more effective troll, you might want to ease up on the Atheist Valentines Card material, and go with some more relevant real-world info.

    Andrew

  20. 20
    Barry Arrington says:

    rvb8

    “Fifty years ago the faithful were mocking the ‘many solar systems, vast universe theory’.”

    You just made that up. When you have to make up lies to support your argument maybe you should take a deep breath and reevaluate your argument (and your ethics).

    60 years ago CS Lewis was embracing the possibility of life on other planets. Were there individuals here and there who denied life on other planets? Perhaps. What gives you the right to say that they speak for the billions of “the faithful.” (Rhetorical question RV).

  21. 21
    Eric Anderson says:

    rvb8, you never answered the question about the relationship (or lack thereof) between ID and extraterrestrial life.

    Your failure to understand the issues makes your comments less than relevant for this forum.

    Maybe if you were to go to a different forum in which the possibility of extraterrestrial life conflicts with their position your comments might have relevance.

    But not here.

  22. 22
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8, you would be well advised to look up the work of ID researcher (and “Exobiologist”) Gonzalez, including his work on discovering extrasolar planets. His fate at the hands of atheists and dirty office politics is worth noting, too. While you are at it, probe a little beyond breathless headlines to see the typical orbital patterns of credibly detected extrasolar planets, and compare with those of our highly privileged planet and solar system. KF

    PS: What part of, the phenomena seen in cell-based life on earth could sufficiently be accounted for in principle on a molecular nanotech lab several generations beyond Venter, is difficult for you to grasp? (As in, could this be part of why we mark a sharp distinction between identifying design as process per tested empirical signs and speculating on the nature and identity of the sources of the detected intelligently directed configuration.)

  23. 23
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: Observe Sheldon in the OP:

    The sun that they orbit is a brown dwarf. It puts out 0.04% of the heat that our own Sun does. In order to be in the “habitable zone” where water is liquid, they orbit at 0.01 AU from their sun, where Earth is 1AU and Mercury about 0.3 AU from our sun. A “year” on these planets is 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, 6 days for the inner few. They are so close to the “brown dwarf” sun that they experience huge tidal forces that force one side of the planet to stay facing their sun. They are also so close that they are exposed to all the “flare particles” released from magnetic activity, so it would suggest one side of each “planet” is scorched and radioactive, while the other side is figid and frozen. Not exactly hospitable.

    They looked for signatures of Hydrogen and Helium and saw none, which suggests that none of the planets is a “gas giant” like Jupiter, and also none of them has an extended oxygen or CO2 atmosphere like Earth or Venus. Many such “solar systems” with “earthlike” planets around “brown dwarf” planets have been seen already, with little hope of life on them. But what makes this one special is that there are 7 such planets all strung out in a line. The “perhaps there’s life” is a red herring to make this newsworthy.

    –> More froth than Mauby, looks like.

    KF

  24. 24

    BA @ 20: Nice work refuting rvb8’s made up facts. Bad atheist, rvb8!

  25. 25
    Seversky says:

    tjguy @ 6

    Seversky, the only way this statement is true is if life evolved all on it’s own here on earth. So your argument is based on the assumption that life evolved by chance all on it’s own. It’s fine to believe whatever you want to believe, but just remember that it is nothing more than your belief at this point.

    Agreed.

    If life did not evolve on this planet, or if it is not possible for life to evolve all on it’s own, then it doesn’t really matter how many planets you find. It’s irrelevant. Now we cannot prove that it did not evolve, so we cannot say for sure that it is impossible, but so far the evidence is mounting against it. It was easy for Darwin to believe in abiogenesis, but it is much more difficult for educated people in the 21st century to believe in that because we know so much more about life and the cell now than he did.

    If life was “seeded” here on Earth rather than emerging through some process of abiogenesis then I have no particular problem with that. It is what it is.

    The problem it does not solve however is the ultimate question of origins. How did the first life ever emerge, wherever that might have been, and what other option is there but abiogenesis? We agree you cannot get something out of nothing. If there had ever been truly nothing there would still be nothing. Unless whatever has always existed is living then life either emerged from or was created from pre-existing inanimate matter.

  26. 26
    Seversky says:

    News @ 5

    Seversky and rvb8, finding new habitable planets that do not have life would, if anything, be an argument against there being life elsewhere.

    It is somewhat like finding hauntable houses that aren’t haunted, no?

    If we were finding a lot of habitable planets that we were pretty sure were uninhabited you would have a point. But that’s not the case.

    Of all the stuff, large and small, whirling around our Sun, only the third big rock out is known to have life on it. If other solar systems are arranged roughly along the same lines then most of the large bodies we detect are not going to be habitable at least by life as we know it. And that is what we are seeing so far. Finding roughly Earth-sized planets in the “Goldilocks” zones around other stars is encouraging although it’s still a long way from establishing the existence of extraterrestrial life.

    Many of us think there is a bit of life out there but deplore the misleading hype, as it will do more harm than good.

    The possibility of life out there shouldn’t be a problem for anyone unless it conflicts with a religious belief. If it were a tenet of a particular faith that humanity was the pinnacle of creation then the discovery of other civilizations equal to or more advanced than we are would present a conflict that would have to be resolved.

  27. 27
    kairosfocus says:

    Seversky, kindly look at the relevant details RS provided. These may be terrestrial-class planets in the relevant temperature zone but the ultra closse-in orbits with tidal lock and brown dwarf context do not speak well. Similarly, many other cases headlined as feeding hopes of extrasolar earth like planets are often leaving out key less than encouraging details. KF

    PS: Maybe you should take a look at the requisites for the claimed, spontaneous formation of cell based life by blind chance and mechanical necessity and the linked search challenges in configuration spaces. (If you suggest another architecture for molecule-based life, kindly substantiate empirically, to move beyond wishful sci fi and fantasy.) The implication is simple: cell based life points to design as most credible — though ideologically unpopular — causal explanation. Were there to be multiple planets in sol system or across the cosmos with life based on molecules, that would more likely be evidence of design, not of how easy it is to spontaneously form life. Where, we must also reckon with the point that impacts on earth have likely carried life spores from here as far as gas giant moons. Multiply this by the logic of the Drake equation and the “great silence” [for simple cases, there being no credible corpus on UFO’s and no serious SETI result, after decades of trying]. That points to something being seriously wrong with the hype and narratives out there. The notion that doubts over hyped up headlines that feed sci-fi and naive evo mat hopes is “religious” — in this context, a smear-word — is an appeal to bigotry, not a serious argument.

  28. 28
    kairosfocus says:

    RVB8, 15: Once the 1920’s were past, no one of consequence has doubted the scale of the universe is vastly beyond what our ancestors could have confirmed, with many, many galaxies now seen as on average several mn LY apart. But I would have you to know that Almagest by Ptolemy — standard Astronomy text for over 1,200 years post c 200 AD — drew the conclusion that by comparison to the distance to the fixed stars, scale of earth was a mathematical point. That is, quasi-infinite. Next, from Eratosthenes, circumference of earth was pretty well known and Aristotle had highlighted that in lunar eclipses Earth’s shadow on the moon was always circular. This gave estimates for earth size and an understanding of its shape; the debates with Columbus were over the scale of the earth, not its shape — and his CRITICS were right; his real contribution was demonstration of how the trade wind system could be used for trade, joined to bumping into the unexpected continent (at least, offshore islands, starting with likely Samana key in the Bahamas — I think Nat Geog got that right back in the 1980’s). Experiments on the taper of shadows cast by sol (108 diameters) and recognition of the comparative radii of the moon and the earth’s shadow pointed to the moon’s scale and distance. There were attempts to estimate distance to sun beyond, frustrated by atmospheric effects. Distances to stars were first measured per parallax in what, 1830’s IIRC, order being light years. The galaxy was pictured by 200 years ago. By the 1920’s it was realised that spiral nebulae were other “island universes” and Hubble’s red shift estimates pointed to the cosmological expansion picture confirmed in the mid 60’s, 50 years ago. BTW, it was a Belgian priest who worked out the expanding cosmos view from General Relativity. No-one of consequence has objected to the idea of a very large universe on the scale of 50 years. As for, if our sol system has planets, others might, that is patent; I cannot ever recall an educated person objecting to this across my lifespan; though I recall having a discussion with a then quite elderly gardener on the credibility of the then in-progress Apollo 11 mission. After church that Sunday, my dad fired up the short wave, and we all listened live to the landing. That night we listened more, and I remember when Nat Geog issued a flexible vinyl in an issue, which we played. Next morning the local newspaper headline was on Man on the Moon, in the largest type size I ever saw in that newspaper. In the Catholic primary I attended, I remember further Moon shots being played live on rediffusion [radio by wire] speakers in the classroom, by nuns who were our teachers. In more recent years, DI Fellow, Guillermo Gonzalez (who is a Christian) has been a noted pioneer of exoplanet discoveries, despite censorship, slander and persecution to the point of expulsion; he put forward and championed the concept of galactic habitable zones. The cosmos has long been known to be huge compared to earth, drop the anti-christian sneers please. KF

  29. 29
    kairosfocus says:

    BA, I too found CS Lewis’ Sci Fi most interesting. I suspect a lot of atheistical types don’t know he had such a corpus! And in his essays he drew attention to Ptolemy’s point that compared to Earth’s scale the fixed stars are at quasi-infinite distances. KF

  30. 30
    Eric Anderson says:

    Seversky @26:

    News @5:

    Seversky and rvb8, finding new habitable planets that do not have life would, if anything, be an argument against there being life elsewhere.

    It is somewhat like finding hauntable houses that aren’t haunted, no?

    Seversky:

    If we were finding a lot of habitable planets that we were pretty sure were uninhabited you would have a point. But that’s not the case.

    This is an interesting idea. If I am understanding you correctly, you are separating out the question of whether the Earth is relatively rare or unique. Clearly most planets are not habitable to the extent Earth is.

    So, essentially, we would have a two-part approach:

    1. First, look at all exoplanet candidates, and narrow down the list to those that are “roughly Earth-sized planets in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone.”

    2. Of that small subset, see if we can determine what percentage have life.

    This approach would seem to have some merit.

    Of course, we should keep in mind that of the nearly 3,500 confirmed exoplanets to date, only a handful are even close to the parameters favorable for large complex life forms. Indeed, it appears that the vast majority of planets are not suitable for much of life as we know it.

    There is likely a sampling bias in the data gathered to date, as our instruments have only recently started becoming sensitive enough to detect Earth-sized planets. As a result, it is possible that a number of Earth-sized planets will yet be found in already-discovered extrasolar systems. It is also possible that Earth-sized planets will yet be found in as-yet-undiscovered systems and that, with a couple more decades of data, we may even find systems roughly similar to our own solar system.

    In any event, based on our current data, it is likely that the total number of planets will dwarf the number of Earth-sized planets within a reasonable habitable zone. Not just by a large percentage or by a few multiples, but by a few orders of magnitude.

    None of this, of course, means that there are no other habitable planets out there. Likely there are. We just need to keep in mind the math when we hear estimations about the number of possible habitable worlds in the galaxy.

    —–

    Back to the two-step approach above. One observation and one question:

    1. It sounds like News was essentially proposing the same approach you are taking. Namely, look at habitable planets as the denominator, not all planets. I agree with you that there isn’t yet much to put in the denominator, so there is something to be said for holding off on any concludions pending further data. In any event, it seems you are both taking the same approach.

    2. What else do you think we should put in the list of parameters before we conclude that we have found a legitimate “habitable” planet? For example, if we wanted to narrow the denominator further, we would require a planet to be not only near-Earth-sized, and in the Goldilocks zone, but we might require that it be in an essentially-circular orbit, that it not be tidally-locked, that it have larger planets farther out in the system to shield from meteors and the like, that it have significant amounts of water, etc.

    It is quite difficult to assess precisely what would be required for intelligent life, much less simple life, and I don’t think there is a definitive correct answer. But what other things should we be looking for, in your estimation, before we decide we have a legitimate candidate?

    —–

    Finally, going back to your initial comment @1, we might take a different approach altogether:

    The more planets they find, the greater the chances of some sort of extraterrestrial life. Yes, they are probably inhospitable environments at best but we have found life in inhospitable environments here on Earth. So the more liberally we find this galaxy is populated with planets the less the chance that we are the only life in this whole vast universe (or multiverse) (or holoverse).

    If we are looking for life in inhospitable environments, we would use nearly all planets found to date as the denominator, on the understanding that we are not looking for large, sentient life – perhaps just simple microbes and the like.

    In this case, we already have a few thousand candidate planets. How would that number factor into our assessment of how ubiquitous life is in the Galaxy?

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