Over the past few years, astronomers have become less and less subtle about hiding their enthusiasm for the prospect that some very big discoveries are just around the corner with respect to that ultimate existential question: Are we alone?
A few years ago, I attended a panel about NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas where a telescope scientist by the name of Matt Mountain said that the Webb telescope would play a role in answering that question. This week, Mountain was on another panel on the topic of life beyond Earth at NASA headquarters, and he’s only grown more bullish on the prospect in the past two years.
“What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 percent of stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone,” Mountain said. “It’s within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever… Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life. Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over.”
Just in the past few years, relying largely on data from the now crippled Kepler Space Telescope and the aging Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, researchers have identified distant exoplanets that are within the habitable zone where water might exist. Most recently, a planet with a rocky composition and size similar to Earth that might have water was identified.
“Sometime in the near future, people will be able to point to a star and say, ‘that star has a planet like Earth’,” said another panelist, Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Astronomers think it is very likely that every single star in our Milky Way galaxy has at least one planet.”
The exciting discoveries of the past few years were done with last-generation equipment, which is why Mountain and others are so excited about what the next decade or two holds, given the handful of ambitious next generation observatories currently under development. For NASA’s part, the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) will launch in 2017 to pick up where Kepler left off looking for distant planets and “other Earths,” and the Webb telescope, which is nearly three times larger than Hubble, is set to launch the following year.
The next generation of land-based telescopes, including thirty-meter giants planned for Hawaii and Chile, will also help usher in a new age of deep space exploration.
It may turn out that we don’t even need to peer that far into space to find life elsewhere, as another of the NASA astronomers suggested that we may find some form of life within the next twenty years not in a distant galaxy, but in the water ocean many believe lies under the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
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