Saturday, March 25, 2006

". . . Next Week in Washington, Talk About Aliens Will Be Taken With Furrowed-Brow Seriousness"

Alien Earth Eyes
How the search for ET turned into hard science

By Jacob Berkowitz
The Ottawa Citizen

     Washington, D.C., is full of conspiracy theories and political intrigue at the best of times. When it comes to talk about aliens in the U.S. capital, it's often about calls for the CIA to reveal what it did with a UFO that allegedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1950s, or buzz about frozen alien bodies in the basement of the Pentagon.

But next week in Washington, talk about aliens will be taken with furrowed-brow seriousness. It's not speculation about pregnant women and Martian abductions, but the painstaking search for possible Martian microbes. Not alien invaders, but talk about using space-based telescopes to search for a sister-Earth around a distant sun.

Only several decades ago, the search for extraterrestrials was led by garage-based amateur enthusiasts debating crop circles and grainy UFO snapshots. Many scientists thought it was quackery.

Today it's called astrobiology, and for the first time in human history is backed by hard science.

Astrobiologists say that we stand on the brink of verifying something that, since the time of the ancient Greeks, humans have only been able to speculate about: life beyond Earth. And 20 years from now, they say, there's a good chance we'll know for certain, one way or the other.

The hundreds of astronomers, planetary geologists, biologists and chemists gathered in D.C. this week for the NASA-sponsored fourth Astrobiology Science Conference are riding a wave of excitement, and barely contained expectation, fuelled by the fact that amidst their speculation they have hard data -- from robotic rovers on Mars to tantalizing glimpses of exoplanets, planets around other suns.

Humanity now has the technology to actually test for life beyond Earth rather than just peer up at the night sky in wonder.

Astrobiology advances just this month point to the convergence of events prompting scientists to believe that if life is out there it can't hide much longer:

- In March, astronomers identified four new planets orbiting distant suns. Prior to the summer of 1995, when the first exoplanet was discovered, we knew of only nine planets, from Mercury out to Pluto, in the entire universe. As of today, astronomers have racked up a menagerie of 185 exoplanets -- mostly gas giants like Jupiter -- and counting, according to the online Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the scientific scorekeeper in the search for exoplanets. Now there's intense competition to find the first Earth-sized rocky planet, and then to probe it for signs of life.

- On March 13, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter entered orbit around the Red Planet to pinpoint the location of water there. This latest probe will provide more scientific data than all previous Mars missions combined. Thanks to recent missions to Mars, it's now clear there've been extensive periods when water existed there. And where there was liquid water there could have been life -- or might still be life, eking out an existence in subsurface ice.

- Later this year, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project will start tuning in to the cosmos with the new massive Allen Telescope Array radio telescope, north of San Francisco. With their new ability to scan a much wider swath of the cosmos in broadband, the folks searching for distant civilizations will even be able to eavesdrop on any "extraterrestrial electromagnetic leakage" from alien TV or radio broadcasts. SETI officials are cocky enough to put a timeline on their search: They expect to make contact within two decades.

More . . .

See Also: Biology Students Learn to Scan the Stars for Signs of Life


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