Search For Extraterrestrial Life Is 'A Legitimate Science Now,' Astrobiologists From NASA, MIT Tell Congress

By Ben Wolford on December 4, 2013 6:02 PM EST

Galaxy
Scientists told members of Congress that the search for life in space is "a legitimate science now."

A congressional committee on Wednesday called three of the smartest astrobiologists on earth to Capitol Hill to discuss something rarely mentioned around Washington: aliens. "The purpose of this hearing is to examine astrobiology research and the search for biosignatures in our solar system and beyond," the Committee on Space, Science and Technology staff wrote. According to The Guardian, which live-blogged the hearing, the takeaway was that extraterrestrial life is likely relatively nearby, and more funding is needed to find it.

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With all of this coming at the tail end of the least productive Congress in history, you can imagine the backlash. "No wonder the American people think this Republican Congress is from another planet — they're more interested in life in space than Americans' lives," a Democratic spokeswoman said, according to The Washington Post. "Saying this Republican Congress has misplaced priorities is an understatement of galactic proportions."

But that's not exactly fair. Elected officials have been interested in space from the very beginnings of the space program, and congressional hearings are an important way to educate the non-scientists who control the federal budget. It's also worth noting that there was similar opposition to the Apollo program in the 1960s. Says Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum: "Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969." The farther away from Apollo's successful completion, the more people say the money was well spent, The Atlantic reports.

Now similar progress is being made in the search for microbial and intelligent space life. "[Astrobiology is] a legitimate science now," said Sara Seager, a physics and planetary science professor at the Massechusetts Institute of Technology. She won a McArthur Genius Grant for her work exploring planets beyond our solar system. "We're not looking for aliens or searching for UFOs." The scientists, who also included Mary Voytek of NASA and Steven J. Dick of the Library of Congress, added that investment in space programs has spinoff economic and educational benefits.

In fact, it's an exciting time in this area of research. NASA has a deep space telescope called Kepler that, until it malfunctioned last year, was trying to take pictures of planets circling other stars, known as exoplanets. Just last month, on Nov. 4, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, released a groundbreaking study based on Kepler data that estimates the number of earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy. The number? 40 billion. The nearest is just 12 lightyears away; sometimes you don't even need a telescope to see it.

The Guardian reported that Seager lost her breath in her eagerness to talk about her work. "You've pretty much indicated life on other planets is inevitable," said Rep. Bill Posey, R-Florida, in the congressional hearing. "It's just a matter of time and funding." Since 1960, according to congressional staffers, NASA has had a formal astrobiology program that outlines essential questions and goals, including determining how to recognize life in space and developing models for how it got there. The last "road map" for the program was written in 2008. NASA is expected to produce a new one in 2014.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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