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On the 15th of January in 1790, nine mutineers from HMS Bounty, 18 people from Tahiti and one baby arrived on Pitcairn Island—one of the most isolated habitable places on the planet. Surrounded by the southern Pacific Ocean and with hundreds of miles of open water between it and the nearest other islands, Pitcairn is the epitome of solitude.

Before the Bounty escapees showed up, the island may not have seen human occupation of any kind since the 1400s, when it was still inhabited by Polynesians. That community perhaps existed for centuries—centuries that seem to have culminated with a depletion of natural resources, as well as conflicts on other, distant islands that cut off lines of trade and supply, leading to the effective extinction of Pitcairn's human occupants. What was, at least superficially, a habitable place had become unsustainable, until the arrival of the Bounty on that fateful day in 1790. Remarkably, it took another 18 years for any other ship to drop anchor at Pitcairn, even though the settlers recorded sightings of vessels passing in the distance.

The story of Pitcairn is just one extreme example of the unusual dynamics of human occupation across the southern Pacific. Within the regions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, there are tens of thousands of islands scattered across millions of square miles of ocean. Many are barely more than a protuberance of rock and coral, and even the habitable spots are not all inhabited at any given time. But taken together, they represent a vast landscape of potential settlement and civilization for people motivated to navigate across Earth's watery depths.

The parallels between this unmistakably terrestrial environment and our cosmic surroundings are striking. In the Milky Way galaxy, there are perhaps as many as 300 billion stars. The best estimates from exoplanet-hunting efforts, such as those undertaken with NASA's Kepler space telescope, suggest that within this ocean of stellar bodies there may be more than 10 billion small, rocky worlds in orbital configurations conducive to temperate surface conditions. Like the islands of Earth, these exoplanetary specks might both generate and support living systems and could provide a network of waypoints for any species determined to migrate across interstellar space. And that is where things get really interesting.

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Category: Science
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