When the meeting of minds took place last month, there was only one topic of discussion – intelligent life beyond Earth. Some of the world’s top scientists met in California to discuss ways to look for alien life, and they may have come up with a plan.
Stanford University was the scene for the second annual Breakthrough Discuss, where scientists from a variety of fields came together to tackle arguably the greatest question we have ever faced – are we alone in the universe?
The event was part of Breakthrough Initiatives, a bold program started by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. The program’s goal is to spark advancements in the search for extraterrestrial life. This includes searching for alien signals via Breakthrough Listen (the possibility of finding signals from aliens, known as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or SETI) and potentially traveling to Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to Earth, with Breakthrough Starshot, the project which would send a spacecraft around the planet of a different star.
The idea of Breakthrough Discuss was not only to talk about these ventures but also to explore the broader search for life. This includes finding potentially habitable worlds around nearby stars like the TRAPPIST-1 solar system in the constellation, Aquarius and more recent discoveries relating to Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.
Image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus in 2009.
“I’m just so delighted with this meeting,” Jill Tarter from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, told IFLScience. “We want to know what our place in the universe is. Are we part of something that’s quite common, or are we totally separate and unusual and unique?” Tarter wasn’t the only scientist who was optimistic either. “We want to get more science done, look for more planets,” said Anglada-Escudé, who was recently named one of Time’s 100 most influential people. “You never know what’s there until you look for it.”
“I’m very excited about the planets around low-mass stars,” Sir Martin Rees, the UK Astronomer Royal said. “And I think it’s very good to realize that the next-generation race to build giant ground-based telescopes is going to open up the possibility of getting real spectroscopic data on the nearest planets.” But it could all take time, of course.
Evaluating exoplanets for life from Earth is not an easy endeavor. Add to that the fact that the field has changed dramatically in just a few years. In 2009, when NASA launched its Kepler Telescope, we still weren’t sure how common planets were around other stars. Now scientists know of thousands, and they are honing in on some that could be habitable. Every star is now thought to host at least one planet on average, and some likely host several.
“It’s an amazing time to be involved in the search for life,” said Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University in New York. “This is the first time in human history we have the means to do it, and if we get really lucky and find life starts everywhere, we could actually have the proof that we’re not alone in hand pretty soon.”
The search for other life that could teach us a more profound understanding of the universe is a driving force for these scientists. Most of us have pondered whether or not we are alone, and many believe that with infinite possibilities, it’s only a matter of time before actual proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life on another planet is discovered. Even if some of these ideas are never actually put into motion, it doesn’t seem that scientists are ready to give up on the search for intelligent life on other planets.
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