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Discovering life on other planets may be around the corner

December 6, 2013
Photo credits: NASA, Wikimedia.

Photo credits: NASA, Wikimedia.

By Annette Birch

The article was published in the Capital Post on Dec. 6, 2013.

Astrobiology expert predicted that man’s wish of discovering life on other planets may come true in five to 10 years when she testified before a House committee on Dec. 4. The committee was holding a hearing about the recent research and future of finding evidence of life in space.

“The most optimistic answer is that it will take a few years,” Dr. Sara Seager, professor at Planetary Science and Physics at MIT, testified before the committee. However, this would depend on certain conditions. Her best guess was that we would have to wait for the next generation telescope to better show us whether other planets had the necessary building blocks to create life.

Dr. Mary Voytek, senior scientist at NASAs astrobiology program, who also testified before the committee, agreed.

“Our previous missions have taught us that life tough, tenacious and diverse. Finally, they can provide data of whether we are alone in the universe,” Voytek said.

With the new James Webb telescope it will be easier to detect life on other planets. Credits: CoconutScienceLab,

Congress has since 1996 funded the astrobiology program at NASA concerned with studying the possibility of life in the universe.  Astronomers have been able to find hundreds of planets with the potential of life. But it has not been able to block out the light from the nearby star in order to give a clear picture of whether the planets would have the necessary building blocks for life. Seager said that the next generation telescope, a “star shade”, would make it possible to block out the light from the star so that we could better study the atmosphere of the planets. She emphasized that it will be necessary to search thousands of stars if we want to up our chances of finding life in some form. That would require additional funding and continued support for NASAs missions to other planets. However, in the five years from 2008 to 2012, the NASA budget has fallen in in nominal dollars, real dollars and as a percentage of the federal budget. The White House budget for FY 2014 proposes $17.7 billion for NASA, a decrease of 0.3 percent (~50million) below the 2012 enacted level, according to the Guardian’s live blog on Dec. 4.

Committee members on both sides of the aisle agreed that finding life on other planets was an extremely important part of the American heritage.

“We must recaptivate that American spirit of dreaming big,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Ca.) said.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tx.) added that adequate funding to the NASA astrobiology program was of vital importance to achieve the goal.

Another issue raised by both Democrats and Republicans at the hearing was how they better could educate and involve the public, especially younger people.

“It is important that we engage more students in STEM education,” Rep. Bonamici (D-Oregon) said. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tx.) and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) agreed.

Seager suggested using social media to reach younger people and restructuring science indication in the United States to better engage children.

“All children are born curious about the world, and somehow it is squashed out of them,” Seager said. Voytek agreed. Kids often like dinosaurs and space and the plants. Cultivating those interests would strengthen science itself.

Credits: timerickson2482,

Both Seager and Voytek agreed that there was life out there and that investing in astrobiology would be an investment in the future.

“This search for finding life will really change the way we view life in the future,” Seager said.  However, she added that there would be no way of knowing whether the traces of life could be attributed to intelligent life or one celled organisms.

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