Extraterrestrial life: part of the countdown

The discovery of other life forms in the universe could happen in the next decade.

This is the view of one of the most quoted scientists today, of Sara Seager, an astronomer and professor at the MIT in Boston. “Today, for the first time in history, we possess the competence for finding life on other planets,” she said some weeks ago, speaking before the Commission Science, Space and Technology House in Washington.



“In the future, we will be seen as the generation who discovered identical worlds to the Earth.” During the hearing, Seager and her colleagues have insisted on the need for increasingly powerful telescopes that can detect biological traces or signs of any alien civilization. That’s why they asked members of the U.S. Congress a little more effort, in economic terms, to invest in this new chapter of scientific research: astrobiology. The study of the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe has made ​​a great leap forward in recent years, largely due to Kepler, the orbiting telescope that has identified more than 3,500 exoplanets: among them, also 10 potential Earth twins .

Hubble and Spitzer, however, have been used to represent the possible atmosphere of those distant worlds. Unimaginable successes only in the twentieth century. The members of the Commission did not hide their enthusiasm for these advances. “The astrobiology has become a cross-cutting issue in all areas of research of NASA, it is essential to continue the funding,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson, deputy of Texas. And Mary Voytek, American space scientist of the institution, she confirmed: “Humanity lived in an era in which it is able to retrieve the wanted data for form of life anywhere in the universe.” One central hub is able to analyze biological traces in the atmospheres of distant planets many light years from us. Finding oxygen, for example, would be of great importance; this chemical element is not maintained in the air, and then discovering it in discrete quantity would mean the presence of living organisms capable of producing it. Another essential molecule for life as we know it – at least – is then H2O, water in short. Just a few days ago, was found on five planets, even if it is super- hot worlds similar to our Jupiter.

But a few years now on, scientists will be based on data collected from TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), the orbiting telescope that will replace Kepler in 2017. The following year, the James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch, with the task of deepening the study of the planets swept up by TESS with the method of transition orbit. In essence, when a planetary body passes in front of host star, it dims the display, temporarily acting as a screen to reveal its presence.

However, the researchers would be able to directly see the planet and this is only possible by blocking the light emitted from the star. There are two at the time, the techniques in the study to arrive at this result, said Sara Seager to the Commission: both will be experimented to see which is the most effective. Members of Congress have suggested the possibility Chenel within 10 years to reach the longed goal and answer the question that the man has always been asking: are we alone in the Universe? To do so, it will be the James Webb Space Telescope or more likely its heir – a new telescope of the latest generation design.

For Seager and for most of his colleagues reached the goal you can say if you were to find microorganisms, bacteria or other forms of elementary life. Stephen Dick is currently a researcher for history of space exploration in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, aiming higher. “No biological trace will ever be more important than a radio signal,” he said, calling to duplicate efforts in the search for intelligent life with SETI. “Once found, the plan is to have the absolute confirmation. Then we will tell you all,” he assured.

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