Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Scientists educated members of the U.S. House of Representatives about the search for extraterrestrial life at a hearing held in Washington, DC on Wednesday, December 4.
The Committee on Science, Space and Technology, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), met for a two-hour hearing titled “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond.” The hearing charter outlined the hearing’s goal, describing:
The purpose of this hearing is to examine astrobiology research and the search for biosignatures in our Solar System and beyond. The hearing will include a general assessment of the multi- and interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research, including the role astrobiology plays in formulating NASA space missions. It will also examine the techniques and capabilities necessary to determine the potential for the existence of biosignatures within our Solar System. With the discovery of potential Earth-like planets outside of our Solar System, the hearing will also investigate what methods are being used to determine if any of these planets may harbor life. The hearing will explore existing and planned astrobiology research strategies and roadmaps.
Three leading scientists presented testimony at the hearing. They are:
- Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Planetary Science Division, NASA
- Dr. Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Physics and Planetary Science, MIT
- Dr. Steven Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology, John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress
These scientists discussed exploration technology like the James Webb space telescope, emphasizing the importance of exploration ventures to the search for extraterrestrial life. Dr. Seager explained, “NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018, will be capable of studying the atmospheres of a subset of the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, scheduled for launch in 2017) rocky exoplanets in visible, near infrared, and infrared light . . . We anticipate TESS will find dozens of super Earths suitable for atmosphere observations by JWST, including several that could potentially be habitable.”
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) asked the scientists, “Do you think there’s life out there?” Seager explained that the Milky Way galaxy contains 100 billion stars and the universe may contain 100 billion galaxies. Then she stated, “Do the math.” As the Guardian reports, when the three scientists were asked for brief answers to the question, “Is life out there?,” the response was “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Yes.”
This hearing comes just a day after the announcement that two studies have revealed that the Hubble space telescope detected water in the atmospheres of five planets outside the solar system. As NBC News reports, “The five exoplanets with hints of water are all scorching-hot, Jupiter-size worlds that are unlikely to host life as we know it. But finding water in their atmospheres still marks a step forward in the search for distant planets that may be capable of supporting alien life, researchers said.”