NASA Scientists More Confident that Extraterrestrial Life Does Exist

By ESO ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By ESO ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Telescope scientist Matt Mountain spoke at a panel on the topic of life beyond Earth and he expressed bullishness on the prospect of finding out that we are not alone in the universe. He is echoing the same sentiments most scientists at NASA have.

With data obtained through the Kepler Space Telescope and the nearly antiquated Huble and Spitzer telescopes, NASA’s scientists were able to identify exoplanets in distant star systems that are believed to be habitable or at least were once habitable. These planets are thought to have water in them. In 2013, three planets were identified to have the possibility of hosting life.They were referred to as Kepler-22b, Kepler 69c, and Kepler-62e.  Just recently, another planet with a prominently rocky topography was identified some 560 light years away. It is dubbed as a “mega-Earth” and described in the press as the “Godzilla of Earths,” being 17 times heavier.

Water: The Indicator of Life

The presence of water in a planet or other heavenly bodies is mostly used as the basis for determining whether or not the possibility of life exists. To identify water, the techniques called absorption spectroscopy and geochemistry are employed. Absorption spectroscopy is the measurement of the absorption of radiation to identify a substance and possibly quantify the amount. Other approaches such as planetary differentiation and radiometry are also used to determine a planet’s potential for liquid water.

The emphasis is on liquid water. Water cannot support life as we know it on Earth if it is frozen. Water in water vapor form, however, is also deemed indicative of supporting life and could be a sign of the presence of underground water reserves. So far, there have been more than a dozen exoplanets that are believed to contain liquid water. They are as follows:

  • 55 Cancri e
  • 55 Cancri f
  • AA Tauri
  • Alpha Centauri B
  • COROT-7b
  • COROT-9B
  • GD 61
  • Gliese 581 c, d and g
  • Gliese 667 C
  • GJ 1214 b
  • HD 28185 b
  • HD 85512 b
  • MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb
  • Kepler-69c
  • Kepler-69c
  • TW Hydrae

Upgraded Extraterrestrial Life Searching Technologies

Next generation observatories are being developed at present. One of them is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) that is expected to be launched three years from now, to take over the role of the aging Kepler satellite. Another exoplanet-seeking telescope will also be launched next year. It is called the James Webb Space Telescope, which is almost three times bigger than Hubble. Next-generation land-based telescopes are likewise in the plans of being erected in Hawaii and Chile.

By Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How NASA Finds Extraterrestrial Life

According to a NASA panel last Monday, the search for alien life is unlikely going to be through warp-based spaceships or other technologies that will take Earthlings to remote areas of space. It’s more likely that it will be through a gigantic space-based telescope that will be looking for planets and analyzing gases that could indicate the planets’ ability to support life. According to MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager, the plan is to look for “biological signatures, gases that are produced by life.” To do all of these, sophisticated giant telescopes will be needed.

NASA will be looking for signs of life that include blue skies, indications of plant life, oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, other gases such as sulfur dioxide, and most importantly water. Aside from amplifying the images of planets, the telescopes will examine the light of stars that pass through the planets. Their radiation absorption and other attributes will be examined through a process called transit spectroscopy. As NASA telescope scientist Matt Mountain commented, “life can imprint itself on the atmosphere of planets going around other stars.”

Aside from land-based telescopes, there are also plans of sending out advanced large space-based telescopes. It will take more technological capability to cover more areas where habitable exoplanets can be found and examined. Fortunately, technology is rapidly progressing. There is a plan to deploy a telescope system in space wherein a satellite known as “starshade” will be flown tens of thousands of kilometers away from the telescope. The telescope will point at this “starshade,” which will filter light to have a better view of exoplanets and the light passing through and reflected by them.

By Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Basically, NASA is simply expressing optimism. There haven’t been concrete signs of real life or habitability found yet. However, with advancements in technology, it should become possible to launch more sophisticated and powerful telescopes into space to better observe planets and other heavenly bodies that could possibly be similar to Earth and capable of supporting life.