Scientists Close in on Question of Life Beyond Earth

Image: Scientists Close in on Question of Life Beyond Earth An artist rendering provided by NASA shows Kepler-22b, a planet known to circle comfortably in the habitable zone of a sun-like star.

Wednesday, 04 Dec 2013 04:37 PM

By Courtney Coren

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Scientists are five to 10 years from discovering whether there is life beyond Earth, so long as there is enough funding for the necessary research and missions, according to congressional testimony Wednesday.

Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics and planetary science professor, told the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that the ability to discover whether life forms exist on planets other than Earth is possible in the relatively near future, but scientists aren't usually comfortable making those types of predictions, The Washington Times reported.

She explained that with the Kepler telescope, NASA scientists have found stars in other solar systems that are similar to our sun, and that about one in five likely host a planet similar to Earth.

NASA is scheduled to launch in 2018 the James Webb Space Telescope, which will have the ability to look at the atmospheres of those types of "exoplanets." Another launch, scheduled for 2017, will focus on the exoplanets' stars.

Seager explained that discovering whether life exists on one of those planets would probably take a telescope stronger than the James Webb, but once that is developed, it shouldn't take much more time after that.

"Then once that one goes up, it would just be a matter of a few years to survey enough stars for planets and find them," she said. "The least optimistic case: we need to find out how to put a large mirror in space to search enough to have enough chance."

She said continuing research will allow the U.S. to remain competitive.

"We can never be too bold," she said. "As we all know, China's headed to the moon right now as we speak. And we see China, in the academic world — they're great at copying everything. But we haven't seen them really innovate. But you never know what the future holds."

According to The Times, congressmen in attendance were enthralled with the testimony.

"This is an exciting subject, even an inspirational one," said Rep. Lamar Smith, of Texas, The Houston Chronicle reported.

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