Galaxy Formation

Life on Mars and the birth of galaxies

A computer simulation of the process galaxies go through as they fall into a cluster. The grey dots represent dark matter while the yellow show stars.

Astronomers from around the world will be meeting in Malta later this year to discuss galaxy formation during a conference organised by Maltese astronomer Victor Debattista, a global authority on the subject.

"We are focusing on various aspects of galaxy formations, including dark holes, dark matter, dust in galaxies and stellar structures which are very hard to see," he said.

Up to 150 experts in the field will be discussing the issue during this one-time meeting to be held in October to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy.

"We hope to have the first results from the Herschel telescope, which is being put up into orbit shortly to look at galaxies," he said, adding that the experts were also planning to give talks to the public about the subject.

Dr Debattista, who will soon start lecturing at the University of Malta, explained that galaxies were discovered almost 100 years ago, a find he described as remarkable.

"It meant that our own home, the Milky Way, was not unique and there were millions of other galaxies out there, each of them self contained," he said, adding that galaxies were constantly evolving.

He said that, since then, one of the goals of astronomy was to try and understand how these galaxies formed. "It is a very complicated process because you need to understand structures which are extremely large and the majority of what we see is dark matter... we do not yet know what this is," he said, adding that there were a lot of unknowns in the area.

Asked whether he believed there was life outside earth, Dr Debattista said it was "inconceivable" for him that there was not: "I am willing to bet money there is life in the solar system and we will discover it in the next 10 to 20 years". However, this did not mean it was intelligent life and he did not know what the answer would be.

"I would say that the chances of finding life on Mars are not so remote," he said.

He said life did not necessarily live on the surface or breathe oxygen: "We know there is life underwater that doesn't need oxygen at all. There is fauna by the volcanic vents underwater that doesn't need oxygen. All these sort of things lead you to believe that eventually we will find life somewhere else."

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