The hunt for exoplanets (planets existing beyond our solar system) has been heating up the past few years. Scientists have been interested in other star systems containing new, exotic planets for quite some time, yet recent discoveries have sparked an increase in curiosity and, in some cases, an increase in the hope for discovering extraterrestrial life. In order to know which exoplanets might harbor life, scientists are searching for the holy grail of exoplanetary research: water.
We have a fair grasp of what is in our own solar system. The possibility of abundant liquid water is slim. There are candidates, of course, though they are few. Recently, NASA announced the first confirmation of evidence supporting the existence of water on Mars via spectral detection.[i]
While this is a fascinating observation, it only confirms the presence of water, not the quantity or whether that quantity is enough to support life. Another candidate is Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. On September 26, 2016, NASA posted a press release stating the Hubble Telescope detected possible water plumes erupting on Europa.[ii] Europa has a global ocean with twice as much liquid as Earth’s oceans; however, it exists underneath a layer of extremely cold and hard ice of unknown thickness. It has long been theorized taht there could exist a large amount of habitable water under the frozen crust of Europa. If this is the case, there might be enough liquid water to support life. As of now, however, there is no direct and clear evidence of life on Europa or anywhere else in our solar system.
There are other contenders, but from what we understand about our solar system, it is an unlikely place to harbor complex extraterrestrial life of any kind. Most other planets are simply uninhabitable. Others have slim possibilities, but, so far, nothing to get overly excited about and not enough evidence to warrant expensive exploration. Thus, scientists have expanded their efforts beyond our solar system in hopes of finding a truly habitable world.
It seems every time a new exoplanet is discovered, the story is covered heavily in the news and interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life is reignited. In fact, there is even an online database of all known exoplanets called The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia.[iii] The catalog boasts a list of 3,640 planets; 2,730 planetary systems; and 612 multiple planet systems.[iv] Established in February 1995, the online encyclopedia is consistently being updated with new information and discoveries. Clearly, for something like this to even exist, exoplanets are considered a very big deal to many.
We saw this, once again, to be true in early 2017, when reports came out stating that astronomers were preparing to search for extraterrestrial biology in the atmosphere of a planet discovered in the Wolf 1061 star system, which is only about fourteen light years away from Earth.[v] The system is known to host three exoplanets and could be a target for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), first scheduled to launch in 2018 with a possible delay until 2019.[vi]
The infrared JWST could be used to detect atmospheric conditions and components in potentially habitable exoplanets. Other projects are being launched in the effort to find habitable exoplanets, including the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), the CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite), and the PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars).
The idea is to find planets in the habitable zone of stars with the right conditions for liquid water. If scientists can accurately determine exoplanetary atmospheres, they might be able to detect the chemicals revealing information about actual present biology. The Wolf 1061 system hosts a small, rocky exoplanet called Wolf 1061c within its habitable zone. This is one of the closest exoplanets where the possibility of finding evidence of biological life is thought great enough to justify the effort in looking.
Like most exoplanets found within the habitable, or “Goldilocks,” zone, there are more factors to consider than just the zone itself. For example, Venus is considered to exist within the inside edge of the sun’s habitable zone and is relatively close to the same size as the Earth. Yet, Venus would not be considered habitable by any means. The atmosphere of Venus is toxic and thick due to too much energy becoming trapped, causing the planet to heat up to temperatures hot enough to boil lead. Scientists believe it may have been habitable at one point in the distant past, yet any water potentially existing would have long since been broken down into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.[vii] The only place on Venus considered remotely habitable is high up in the atmosphere. This leads some scientists to speculate that floating life forms might currently be present, and perhaps humans might one day inhabit Venus in cities made to float high above the crushing, lower atmospheric pressures of the planet. Yet, this possibility is highly unlikely. This goes to show that there are many factors outside of the exoplanet’s size and proximity to a star to consider before determining whether it is truly habitable.
One of the biggest discoveries made of exoplanets in recent history was the TRAPPIST-1 system. The name of the system derives from the telescope that first discovered it, the TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). TRAPPIST-1 is a planetary system located thirty-nine light years (twelve parsecs) away, located in the Aquarius constellation. The star in the TRAPPIST-1 system is twelve times less massive than our sun and only slightly larger than Jupiter. Seven planets have been discovered orbiting the star.
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The system was first discovered by the TRAPPIST. Additional planets were later discovered using the TRAPPIST, the Spitzer space telescope, the Very Large Telescope, UKIRT, the Liverpool Telescope, and the William Herschel Telescope. All planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system pass in front of their star from our perspective here on Earth. The planets were discovered in a way many other exoplanets are detected. Regular and repeated shadows of the planets are cast during their orbit around the star, thereby allowing transit signals to be used to measure the orbital periods, sizes, and masses of the planets.[viii]
It was discovered that the planets are consistent with a rocky composition. It was also found that the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system have sizes and masses similar to those of Earth and Venus. They receive an amount of light from their star that is similar to that of many of the planets in our solar system, from Mercury to beyond Mars. The TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets are considered the most optimal for habitation compared with any other exoplanets discovered There is great hope within the scientific community of discovering evidence of biological life on one or more of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets. In the minds of certain scientists specializing in these areas, what will increase the chances of this great hope being realized may not reside in a rocky world, rather in a watery world: a planet covered entirely, or at least mostly, with liquid water.
Importance of Exoplanetary Water in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life
From a purely scientific and perhaps all-around logical point of view, the existence of liquid water should drastically increase the chances of finding extraterrestrial life on any given planet or moon. Of course, as of now, the only planet we have to compare anything to is our own.
More than 70 percent of Earth is covered in water. However, this might not be as much as we’d like to think, according to certain scientists. A recent article published for Monthly Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society seems to indicate Earth is on the low end of water percentage for inhabitable planets, according to simulations.[ix] In fact, the study suggests, if there are other inhabitable planets in the universe, most of them should be dominated by oceans spanning over 90 percent of their surface. The ones primarily covered by land—like Mars, for example—would likely be uninhabitable due to lack of water. Basically, the more water, the better chances for life. Therefore, some scientists have shifted their attention from land-based exoplanets to literal waterworlds In the hope of finding complex organisms.
The article suggests that a planet must maintain a certain balance if it is to have extensive land masses along with large oceans. There are several factors striking this balance, such as the amount of water on the surface of a planet, the available space to store it, and the existence of varying and dynamic topographical features. In short, a planet to have both land and ocean in a significant way has to have lots of water, lots of space, and plenty of ocean basins and mountain ranges. If the oceans are too shallow and land altitude too low, excess water will cover most of the planet’s surface, making life on land extremely difficult. The vast variety of the Earth’s topography allows for approximately 30 percent of land to remain above water.
The study claims that Earth is likely unique in this regard. It is theorized that most potentially habitable planets found within the “Goldilocks zone” (the correct proximity to a star where water can exist without boiling away or freezing) would be waterworlds. Now, of course, the models used within the article are not made from direct observations of exoplanets. These are instead speculations based on various models of hypothetical exoplanets.
Scientists are still unsure of how planets get their water in the first place (remember, this is from a scientific perspective—one in which “God did it” is not normally a sufficient answer). The most popular theory states that most of Earth’s water was brought by asteroids and comets.[x] If that were to be true, it would be nearly impossible to predict the amount of water on any planet without the benefit of direct observation. Every star system is different in terms of number of asteroids, comets, moons, and other nearby planets, which can all affect the outcome of water delivery.
The idea of waterworlds is sometimes used to explain why we have yet to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. If Earth is as unique in the universe as this article suggests, and if there is life elsewhere in the universe, it would likely be marine life. It is very unlikely that an intelligent civilization with high-level technology could develop on a world dominated by water. Even if this were somehow the case, the type of technology used would likely be so vastly different from our own, which is primarily land and air based, that we would not know how to detect any signals of it.
Of course, the discussion of possible extraterrestrial life is not purely a scientific one, nor is it purely a theological one, but is found somewhere in between. We recognize the scientific importance of liquid water in the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, but what role does water play theologically? How did ancient Near-Eastern religions, which believed in the existence of a wide range of intelligent entities outside the scope of human beings, view water? Was water as important to the ancient gods as it seems to be in the search for life outside Earth? From an ancient perspective, is water connected with life as it is from a scientific perspective today? Interestingly enough, what we discover is just the opposite.
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The Significance of the Sea in Ancient Near-Eastern Religions
With popular shows such as Ancient Aliens promoting the belief that ancient gods were just mistaken extraterrestrials, the world is now very familiar with Ancient Astronaut Theory. Many ancient texts, especially those from the ancient Near East, are used to support this claim. Among the most used are ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Jewish texts. However, certain inconsistencies found within those texts do not seem to promote Ancient Astronaut Theory. For example, in the creation mythology of Baal, the gods existed in a watery abode. Ancient Astronaut theorists might be tempted to think of this as a waterworld exoplanet. If this were the case, and if these alien gods communicated with mankind, we should expect beliefs around those communications to develop within their culture and religion. Why is it, then, that large bodies of water such as the sea were more closely related to concepts of chaos and death in these belief systems? If alien creator gods came from waterworlds, shouldn’t the seas of Earth represent life rather than death? A closer look at the ancient texts themselves can provide a clearer picture of the whole story.
The Enuma Elish
The Enuma Elish is the Babylonian epic of creation, also known as The Seven Tables of Creation.[xi] All of the tablets containing the creation myth were found at Ashur, Kish, Ninevah, Sultante, and other excavated sites. The tablets date to c. 1100 BCE, but there are indications that they are copies of a much older version of the story.[xii] The myth describes the birth of the gods, the universe, and human beings. In the beginning, according to the story, there was nothing else except chaotic water everywhere. Out of the movement of the water, the waters divided into fresh and salt water. The fresh water is identified as the god Apsu, while the salt water is identified as the goddess Tiamat. Through these two entities came the birth of younger gods.
The younger gods were noisy and troubling Apsu, so, upon the advice of Mummu, Apsu decided to kill the younger gods. Tiamat heard of this and warned her eldest son, Enki (sometimes Ea), so he put Apsu into a sleep and killed him. Enki then created his home from Apsu’s remains. Tiamat became angry over Apsu’s death and consulted with Quingu, who advised her to bring war against the younger gods. Tiamat gave Quingu the Tablets of Destiny, which solidifies the rule of a god. Quingu wore the tablets as a breastplate. Tiamat then summoned the forces of chaos and created eleven monsters to destroy the younger gods.
Ea/Enki and the other younger gods fought against Tiamat, but were unable to win the battle until Marduk emerged as a champion among them. Marduk defeated Quingu and killed Tiamat by shooting her with an arrow, splitting her in two. Marduk created the heavens and the earth from Tiamat’s corpse (half to make the heavens, half to make the earth). He then appointed jobs to the younger gods and bound Tiamat’s eleven monsters to his feet as trophies. He then took the Tablets of Destiny from Quingu, thereby solidifying his reign.
Marduk then talked with Ea, recognized as the god of wisdom, and decided to create human beings. He did this by killing the gods who convinced Tiamat to go to war. Quingu was found guilty and killed. Ea created Lullu, the first man, from the blood of Quingu. Lullu’s job was to help the gods in their task of maintaining order and keeping chaos restrained. The story then ends with a long praise of Marduk for everything he did. The entire story is about chaos being subdued by the destruction of a great sea beast. In other words, the sea beast is a symbol for chaos.
The Baal Cycle
A similar story can be found in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. Ugarit was an ancient city, located at what is now Ras Shamra in northern Syria.
In the second millennium B.C., the population of Ugarit was Amorite and would have controlled roughly two thousand square kilometers on average.[xiii] During some of its history, Ugarit would have been directly within, or at least in close proximity to, the Hittite Empire.
Ugarit was destroyed in the early twelfth century B.C. and its location was forgotten until 1928, when a peasant accidentally discovered an old tomb. The area of the tomb was found to be the necropolis of Ugarit. Excavations have since revealed a city with a prehistory reaching back to c. 6000 B.C.[xiv]
Archaeologically speaking, Ugarit is considered Canaanite.[xv] Arguably, the most important literary document recovered from Ugarit is the Baal Cycle, which describes the basis for the belief system surrounding the Canaanite deity Baal. In fact, Ugarit bordered the Northern Israelite Kingdom and can be considered the center of ancient Baal worship. Of further importance is the discovery of the Ugaritic language, which is closer to biblical Hebrew than any other Semitic language. There are extremely interesting word-for-word parallels between Ugaritic myths and passages in the Old Testament that show clear polemics (controversial arguments intended as an attack on a differing belief or idea). As we will explore a bit later, we can read the Creation account in the Bible and see a polemic to the Baal Cycle.
The Baal Cycle isn’t as much about creation as it is a competition between gods in order to win a position of rulership with the supreme god El. It describes a battle between Baal (meaning “lord”) and Yam (meaning “sea”) and another battle between Baal and Mot (meaning “death”). Yam is also called Nahar (meaning “river”) and is also described as a sea monster with seven heads named Litanu (the Canaanite word for ‘Leviathan”). In the Baal Cycle, Yam is a symbol for the sea and the forces of chaos, comparable to Tiamat in the Enuma Elish. Baal defeats Yam and is declared king of the other gods, yet still under El. He is given the titles “the Rider on the Clouds,” “Most High,” and is described as having everlasting dominion.
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[ix] Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 468, Issue 3, 1 July 2017, Pages 2803–2815, https://academic.oup.com/mnras/article/468/3/2803/3059153/Bayesian-evidence-for-the-prevalence-of.
[xi] All seven tablets, translated to English, can be read here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/enuma.htm.
[xiii] Pardee, Dennis. “Ugaritic,” in The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (2008) (pp. 5–6). Roger D. Woodard, editor. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-68498-6, ISBN 978-0-521-68498-9 (262 pages).
[xiv] Yon, Marguerite (2006). The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra. Singapore: Eisenbrauns. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-57506-029-3. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
[xv] Tubb, Jonathan N. (1998), “Canaanites” (British Museum People of the Past)
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