Monday, May 26, 2014

Finding Life on other planets will take good science and luck

Humanity will have the tools to detect alien life in the next two decades, but whether scientists can actually find life in another solar system depends a lot on luck, a panel of experts said Wednesday (May 21).

While the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), expected to launch in 2018, will have the ability to search for the chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of alien worlds, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that scientists will find extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe.

No one is sure how life begins or how ubiquitous it is, making it very difficult to pinpoint when and where to find it, scientists said during a session at the 30th US National Space Symposium in Clorado.

"We don't know how many planets we're going to have to examine before we find life, and not finding it on 10 or 100 doesn't mean it's not there," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for the science mission directorate said during the panel. "This may be very tricky."

This diagram shows the position of Kepler-186f in relation to Earth.

Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

A mission still in the early stages of development could also help scientists investigate alien worlds even without the use of a large telescope.

"Starshade," the huge sunflower-shaped craft would block light from a star to allow a well-positioned space telescope to look at the atmospheres of rocky planets orbiting sun-like stars, a historically difficult feat.

By using the starshade, scientists can hunt for an "Earth twin" orbiting a yellow star in the habitable zone like Earth, the only planet scientists know hosts life.

"We'll have the capability to find it [life] and we'll have that capability within a decade with James Webb and hopefully within two decades with an Earth twin, but beyond that, it's really just up to chance," Seager, who is affiliated with the starshade group, said.

The project is led by Jeremy Kasdin, a professor at Princeton University, N.J., in conjunction with JPL and support from Northrop Grumman of Redondo Beach, Calif.

Kasdin gave a TED talk about the project on March 19.

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