In $earch of alien life

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SCIENCE -

THE search for ex­trater­res­trial life crosses ev­ery bound­ary. It has sur­passed the limit of where hu­mans can travel and tested the lim­its of what we can see. The quest must pass through time as well as space. Also: US Congress. A House com­mit­tee con­vened in early De­cem­ber to take up an abid­ing mys­tery of the universe: are we Earth­lings alone?

Af­ter about 90 min­utes of tes­ti­mony, com­mit­tee chair La­mar Smith of Texas gavelled the hear­ing to an in­con­clu­sive close.

It was not, how­ever, a fruit­less out­ing. In im­pas­sioned tes­ti­mony, wit­nesses from Nasa, the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and the Li­brary of Congress de­scribed a cross­roads in the search for life out there and sug­gested sci­en­tists may be on the verge of a break­through.

“This is the first time in hu­man his­tory we have the tech­no­log­i­cal reach to cross the thresh­old,” said Dr Sara Sea­ger, an MIT pro­fes­sor and 2013 MacArthur “ge­nius grant” re­cip­i­ent.

Her work fo­cuses on the de­tec­tion of “biosig­na­ture” gases on dis­tant plan­ets, large vol­umes of which might in­di­cate life, whether in­tel­li­gent life or sin­gle-cell bac­te­ria.

Sea­ger tes­ti­fied that the James Webb space tele­scope, sched­uled for launch in 2018, and other ad­vances are chang­ing the search for alien life forms.

“If life re­ally is ev­ery­where, we ac­tu­ally have a shot at it,” she said.

Nasa an­nounced last month that its Ke­pler mis­sion had dis­cov­ered 3,500 po­ten­tial plan­ets in the Milky Way galaxy, in­clud­ing 647 thought to be the right dis­tance from stars to sup­port in­hab­i­tants.

The Hub­ble space tele­scope has de­tected wa­ter in the at­mos­pheres of five plan­ets out­side the so­lar sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to two stud­ies re­leased this week.

“The chance is very high” of life else­where in the universe, Sea­ger said.

“The ques­tion is: is there life near here, in our neigh­bour­hood of stars? We think the chances are good.”

The wit­nesses said that sus­tained fund­ing was needed for sci­en­tific re­search in gen­eral and space re­search in par­tic­u­lar. The lat­est White House bud­get calls for US$17.7bil (RM57.2bil) for Nasa, a slight de­crease from 2012 af­ter deeper cuts in the last decade.

“I know that fund­ing is tough, but it’s the best thing that you can do,” said Dr Mary Voytek, se­nior sci­en­tist for as­tro­bi­ol­ogy at Nasa.

“You’ve pretty much in­di­cated (the dis­cov­ery of) life on other plan­ets is in­evitable,” ob­served Bill Posey, Repub­li­can of Florida.

“It’s just a mat­ter of time and fund­ing.” – Guardian News & Me­dia

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