Extraterrestrial Life: A Discovery Within Reach?

June 1st, 2014

Sara Seager is searching for life beyond our solar system, and she believes our generation has the ability to find it.

“We stand on a great threshold in the human history of space exploration,” she testified before Congress last December. “…If life is prevalent in our neighborhood of the galaxy, it is within our resources and technological reach to be the first generation in human history to finally cross this threshold, and to learn if there is life of any kind beyond Earth.”

Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics who holds the Class of 1941 Professorship, went on to describe her personal vision for how we’ll achieve that feat. Key to that end is a series of new, more powerful telescopes, both in space and on Earth. Two of these are slated for launch in 2017 and 2018.

“Finding life elsewhere in our galaxy would forever change how we see ourselves and our place in the cosmos,” Seager told Congress. In the meantime, the search is inspiring future researchers in and beyond the field of space science. “By investing in university-supported astrobiology space-mission related research, we can continue to train a workforce for technology leadership of the future.”

The topic of the session captured the imagination of the media, which reported its highlights under headlines such as “Great Moments from the Congressional Hearing on Aliens” (Vice) and “This Alien Hearing Is the Best Thing Congress Has Done in Months” (MSN News).

The full text of Seager’s testimony to Congress is available online, as is video of the hearing.

Read more about Seager’s research in the Spring 2014 “Discovery Issue” of MIT SPECTRVM (“Searching for Life”).

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2 Responses to “Extraterrestrial Life: A Discovery Within Reach?”

  1. mehmet emin özel Says:

    Dear Dr Seager,

    your inspiring approach will bring, in a short time, exciting results, we believe. Our group is also of the opinion that, the oxygen levels on earth’s atmosphere could also be shown to have parallels with total residual Chemical Potential Energy (past life’s total accumulated ‘organic’ remains) as discussed in a 2012 paper by Budding, .., Ozel et al., “Near resonant diurnal reactions: a physical model applicable to origin of life processes”, (Turkish Journal of Physics, 36, 473-493, 2012). Probably we could (could we ?) further deduce the level of development and complexity of life by the level of oxygen in the atmosphere of a habitable planet (?).

    yours, m.e.özel

  2. CrisisMaven Says:

    I have a strong suspicion, that searching for extraterrestrial life with today’s technology may end about as inconclusive as the search for net-energy-producing nuclear fusion on earth has. While fusion is always “in fifty years”, extraterrestrial life may be as elusive only on a, say, twenty-year moving time-scale. First we need to define what we want to define as “life”. If certain amino acids or similarly complex substances are enough and if we can “see” them through spectroscopy, well, granted, we might find “some”. However, putting a new twist on the panspermia hypothesis, Hoyle already has shown that e.g. interstellar dust has an identical footprint with Escheria coli. Yet no one wants to touch the subject as it would be too mind-boggling. If, on the other hand, you are looking for signals that only technologically “advanced” species would produce, then you equally may be in for a sore surprise and in a fix: looking back at human history, certainly we did not start leaving traces such as electromagnetic waves for longer than, say, 100 years that could in theory be detected from “abroad”. However, I doubt if we would still emit such traces after another 100 years have passed. I think our radio communications are very crude methods and in a few hundred years we won’t rely on them at all anymore and if, then at such tiny signal amplitudes as to render them undetectable even on, say Jupiter. that said: do you seriously think there is a chance of a synchronicity where we happen to look at a distant planet that just in the last, say, three hundred years (add the distance in light years in each case) has emitted strong signals as you need to be able to detect them? Combined with the “rare earth hypothesis” (which I think has many valid points, only a billionth of these “second earths to be discovered will ever fall within these limits!

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