Do you often dream about extraterrestrial life beyond earth? NASA scientists are engaged in proving your dreams to be true. Many scientists believe we are not alone in the universe. It’s probable, they say, that life could have arisen on at least some of the billions of planets thought to exist in our galaxy alone — just as it did here on planet Earth. This basic question about our place in the Universe is one that may be answered by scientific investigations.
Former astronaut and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden set the tenor of the hourlong conversation about how NASA planned to look for life on other planets in his introductory remarks.
“Do we believe there is life beyond Earth?” he asked. “I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the universe we humans stand alone.”
He added that while he was in space back in 1990, he did not encounter any extraterrestrial life forms, but he did look for them – really hard, and all the time.
Mars and a number of moons in our solar system have been the focus of the search for alien life for decades.
Kepler has dramatically changed what we know about exoplanets, finding most of the more than 5,000 potential exoplanets, of which more than 1,700 have been confirmed.
Kepler also found the first Earth-size planet to orbit in the “habitable zone” of a star, the region where liquid water can pool on the surface.
“What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 percent of stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone,” says Matt Mountain, director and Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 will help scientists see whether any of those billions of planets have the right chemical fingerprint to suggest they harbor life.
“With the James Webb, we have the first capability of finding life on other planets, but we have to get lucky; we have to beat the odds,” says Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at MIT.
Finding smaller planets, the Earth twins, is a tougher challenge because they produce fainter signals. Technology to detect and image these Earth-like planets is being developed now for use with the future space telescopes. The ability to detect alien life may still be years or more away, but the quest is underway.
Said Mountain, “Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life. Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over — the possibility we’re no longer alone in the universe.”
There was a question-and-answer session at the end of the panel. One question, posed by a person on social media, stood out: “If scientists do find life on another planet, will the U.S. government let people know?”
Stofan (NASA’s chief scientist;) fielded that one. “Of course we would!” she said without hesitation. “That would be so amazingly exciting. We would try to get it out to the public as fast as we can. We want everyone to share in the excitement of discovery.”