Saturday, October 23, 2010

What To Do If We Find Extraterrestrial Life

Extraterrestrial Life
By Nick Pope

Nick Pope     LONDON — This month the Royal Society held a two-day meeting to work out a "scientific and societal agenda" on extraterrestrial life, following up on a similar meeting in January. The discussions generated controversy, conspiracy theories and a little bit of acrimony. So what happened? I was there on both days, and here's the inside story.

Scientists are searching for extraterrestrial life in a number of different ways and places. One aspect of this is the search for extrasolar planets, on the basis that an Earth-like planet around a sun-like star might be a good place to look. The first super-Earths have been discovered, and the longer-term goal will be to undertake spectral analysis of the atmospheres of such exoplanets, looking for oxygen, ozone, water and other potential indicators of life. The recent excitement over Gliese 581g brings such work into focus — though even the very existence of this world is now the matter of some debate.

Other scientists believe our best chance of discovering alien life will be a human or robotic mission in our own solar system — probably to Mars — targeted at detecting extraterrestrial microbial life. But the controversy begins with the small but vociferous group of scientists who use radio telescopes to search the sky for a signal from other civilizations.

The radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The lack of results has led to a reassessment of search strategies. Some exotic ideas about where to look and what to look for were discussed at the Royal Society meeting.

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