How close are we to an alien invasion?

The James Webb Space Telescope
NASA/Courtesy

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On July 14, NASA held a panel discussion regarding the search for potentially habitable worlds and the existence of life on other planets. The panelists included some prestigious names — John Grunsfeld, an astronaut who personally repaired the Hubble Space Telescope multiple time while it was in orbit; John Mather, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for physics; Sara Seager, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 2013 MacArthur fellow; Dave Gallagher, the director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Matt Mountain, an astrophysicist who holds professorial roles at both Johns Hopkins and Oxford University.

In short, these scientists spent an hour and a half talking about the advancements NASA has made in coming closer to finding life outside of earth. Here are your key points:

First off, all the panelists firmly believe that life exists outside of our earth.

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Telescopes are the key to discovering life in other solar systems. Launching past telescopes, such as the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler telescopes, helped us discover some major things that got us to where we are today, including these facts:

1) The universe is constantly expanding

2) We now have technology to see what chemicals are in the atmospheres of planets all throughout space. There are certain chemicals or gases that can be found in these atmospheres that are indicative of life because they can only be released by living organisms.

3) The universe is huge. In the past five years, we’ve realized that there are BILLIONS of planets out there. Every star you see in the night sky likely has at least one planet around it.

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These discoveries have come together to mean one thing: We’re closer to finding life elsewhere than ever before by using telescopes to analyze the chemical composition of planet atmospheres. But we’re also now faced with a challenge that we couldn’t have imagined five years ago — the absurd size of the universe.  

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We need bigger telescopes to be able to handle the newfound largeness of the universe. NASA offers the James Webb Space Telescope as a step toward solving this problem. As a reference point, the JWST is 6.5 m while the Hubble is 2.4 m, so it is much larger and gives us a higher chance of finding life outside of earth. 

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JWST is unlike anything we ever could have imagined, but we would still have to get absurdly lucky to actually find Earth-like planets with just JWST. Because of the immense number of planets in our universe, a 6.5 m telescope is good but not good enough. 

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In short, we should all be excited because NASA is going to launch an insanely huge rocket carrying a large telescope into space in October of 2018. Though we have made strides towards discovering extraterrestrial beings, there is still a lot of work ahead.

We asked Alan Gould, a Kepler co-investigator for education and public outreach who also happens to work for a research-based science curriculum program called FOSS, which is stationed at our very own Lawrence Hall of Science. In other words, Gould is very informed about NASA’s telescopes and search for life elsewhere, and he is also an active member of our Berkeley scientific community.

“It is an age old question: Are we alone in the universe, or are there other intelligent beings out there for us to somehow meet up with? JWST will be the biggest telescope to be deployed in space, EVER. It’s way bigger than Hubble Space Telescope, and Hubble found so many surprising things. So there’s no telling what JWST can find for us. Kepler could detect planets but had no capability to tell if a planet had atmosphere, which is so important for life. JWST has capability to detect atmosphere and even composition of atmosphere,” Gould explained.

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Contact Claralyse Palmer at [email protected].