If you believe there must be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the immensity of the universe, here’s some good news: Top NASA scientists agree with you, and at a panel discussion on Monday, they said they were closer than ever to finding out for sure.
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.
Seated on the panel were some of NASA’s top scientists, including Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist; John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and NASA’s associate administrator; John Mather, senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope; and Dave Gallagher, director of astronomy and physics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at MIT, and Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, were also on the panel.
Though some NASA scientists are looking for signs of life in our solar system - most aggressively on Mars, but perhaps soon on one of the ice moons - the scientists on the panel spoke exclusively about looking for signs of life on planets around other stars.
Thanks to data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009, scientists now estimate that nearly every star in our galaxy has at least one planet circling it.
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. Specifically, they are looking for gases in the planet’s atmosphere that could only be produced by life. But even with a telescope the size of James Webb, chances of success are low.
“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,” Seager said.
But as the space telescopes launched by NASA get bigger and bigger, the odds of finding life will get better and better. Seager and Gallagher spoke about new technologies in development that may make it easier to find smaller, Earth-sized planets.
The smaller planets that are most similar to our own are incredibly difficult to discern because they shine very faintly compared to their host star. So researchers at JPL are working on creating a sunflower-shaped starshade, which would be launched in tandem with a space telescope. It would block out starlight, making it easier to see the planets around stars.
“We believe we are very close in terms of science and technology to finding another Earth, and signs of life on another world,” Seager said.
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 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.”
As to what you can do to help scientists on their search for life on other planets, Seager said they are working on it.
“I’ve started to get asked that question a lot, and we are working on a better answer for you,” she said. “We are finding untold numbers of people who want to help us.”
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