We must continue to search for extraterrestrial beings, scientists tell senators

An artist’s concept of how the surface of Europa might look like. Credit: NASA

Four scientists from the case yesterday (Aug. 1) to a panel of senators that Congress should continue to fund NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

Only one of these scientists was directly linked with the NASA, and the hearing touched on a wider range of scientific priorities for the agency and how to balance that with a limited budget. After the opening statements, the session began with the subcommittee chair Sen. Ted Cruz asks the panel flat, why should we search for life on other worlds.

“I believe that it is one of the great questions of humanity. This is how great nations is a sign — it is by what they do for their citizens, but also how they move history forward,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said. “This will be one of these questions, if answered, that will be remembered forever, because it will be a leap in not only understanding more about nature, but a leap in the understanding of ourselves at a level we have never had in the past.” [9 Strange, Scientific Excuses Why We Haven’t Found Aliens Yet]

Other panelists echoed the emphasis on symbolism and inspiration than of science. Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that most of the current senior researchers came of age during the moon landings. “Today, the equivalent of that is the search for life, and that the public search, and when we do discover it, inspire the next generation to go into the technology,” she said.

But she was also careful to more tangible benefits that can come from searching for life, regardless of whether we ever find. She didn’t want to promise specific technologies, but claimed that scientific research would inevitably lead to benefits not yet expected. “It takes a ton of pure scientific research to come up with something practical, things that you could never come up with if you’re looking for something practical,” Seager said, pointing to the GPS technology, which began as a way to get satellites, and was later used for ground navigation, as an example.

With the emphasis on spin-off technology is a clear theme in the hearing, with senators pushing the scientists to explain how the search for life on other worlds would be able to take advantage of the humans on Earth. Meanwhile, the scientists offered an economic justification for the search as an intellectual.

“If we try to do things that are really hard, like we did in the days of Apollo, when you push yourself to answer the really difficult questions, that is when you really push technology forward,” Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and former chief scientist of NASA said. “I would say that when you push technology forward, then push the society forward, you push the economy forward.”

The panel also tried to convince the senators that the United States, in particular, is in a position to approach the search for life and to welcome to search. “Thanks to decades of NASA spacecraft missions, we know how to take the next steps in the search for life in Europa, Enceladus and, of course, Mars, and eventually Titan,” Stofan said.

Seager, according to a passage by John Adams, in which he declared that the belief in life on other worlds, long before science can prove that such worlds exist. “Although we have no evidence for life beyond Earth, we are the first generation with the ability to find it,” Seager said, describing how the new Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope will work together to identify planets around a small, faint M dwarf stars. [NASA’s New Planet Hunter Starts The Search for Alien Worlds]

Even admit that this technology is still in the works, Seager emphasizes that NASA is on track to develop the tools and should not distract from that effort. She was talking about technologies intended to help scientists find out what she called “a true Earth twin,” a planet with a bright sun and an environment such as ours.

While most of the conversation focused on microbial life, the discussion did touch briefly on technologically advanced civilizations outside of our solar system. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, referred to the theoretical possibility of a billion-year-old civilizations and asked if we still seek to live the right way. Stofan elegantly directed the conversation back to the exoplanet science and research to our own district first.

And, of course, the James Webb space telescope show in the discussion with the senate, the expression of the usual horror on the instrument that the cost overruns and launch delays. The scientists made the case, however, is that the telescope was worth the effort.

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