Life beyond Earth 'within our grasp', astronomer says

September 17, 2010 By Alvin Powell
Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger said the chance for discovery of small, rocky Earth-like planets with the potential to harbor life is pretty good. “It is within our grasp to do this,” she said.

With a bit of luck and a new space telescope, within five years we could know the answer to a question that humanity has pondered for millennia: Is there life beyond Earth?

With initial results from the planet-finding Kepler satellite to be released in coming months, and the prospects of taking a closer look at those in the coming years with the Webb space telescope, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger said the chance for discovery of small, rocky Earth-like planets with the potential to harbor life is pretty good.

“It is within our grasp to do this,” Kaltenegger said during a talk Wednesday (Sept. 15) sponsored by the Harvard Initiative.

Kaltenegger’s enthusiasm for her subject was reflective of the current excitement among astronomers who’ve spent years searching for planets around other stars. A major focus has been to answer the question of whether there are other Earth-like planets out there and whether those planets might harbor life.

Recent advances in technology and technique have put those answers just beyond our fingertips. Kaltenegger’s optimism stands on three scientific legs.

The first is the . Kepler is a space telescope launched in 2009 that is dedicated to finding small, around other stars. Like Earth, such planets are thought to have the best chance of harboring the conditions favorable to life. In June, Dimitar Sasselov, co-principal investigator of Kepler’s science mission and professor of astronomy at the CfA, announced that Kepler has already found more than 700 candidate planets. Researchers are conducting follow-up studies and expect to announce how many of them are confirmed in the coming months.

The second leg will be the . Set to be launched in 2014, Webb has a 6.5-meter mirror, which Kaltenegger said is large enough to let scientists take a closer look at the planets found by Kepler.

The third leg is the ability of scientists to read the of planets around other stars. As first demonstrated in 2007 by Harvard astronomy professor David Charbonneau and colleagues, researchers can measure the light coming from the star as the planet passes in front of it. By looking at how the starlight is altered when it passes through the planet’s atmosphere, scientists can tell what the atmosphere is made of.

The presence of certain compounds in the atmosphere is indicative of life, Kaltenegger said, because on Earth at least, the compounds are either important for life or present in the atmosphere because of living things. One of the biggest is oxygen, which is released by plants and microbes during photosynthesis. Other chemicals that are potential signatures of life include methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide, which are produced by bacteria. Water vapor is another important signature to look for, because water is important for life on Earth.

“I love biota, but what I love even more is biota that modifies the atmosphere,” Kaltenegger said.

Other factors will be important as well, Kaltenegger said. A planet’s orbit has to be in the so-called Goldilocks Zone — not too close to the star, which would make it too hot to support life, and not too far away, which would make it too cold. Where the planet is in its evolution is important as well, Kaltenegger said. The composition of the Earth’s atmosphere has changed over time, with six very distinct epochs that would show up differently to observers looking at the Earth from far away. Fortunately, Kaltenegger said, the Earth’s example has shown that the conditions favorable to life aren’t fleeting; some signs have existed in the Earth’s atmosphere for two billion years.

Major volcanic events may also be possible to detect, Kaltenegger said — explosions 10 to 100 times the Mount Pinatubo eruption should be detectable. Since volcanism and plate tectonics are thought to be important geologic processes supporting life, Kaltenegger said, they are another indicator that can be viewed from far away.

Explore further: Avatar's moon Pandora could be real

Related Stories

Avatar's moon Pandora could be real

December 17, 2009

In the new blockbuster Avatar, humans visit the habitable - and inhabited - alien moon called Pandora. Life-bearing moons like Pandora or the Star Wars forest moon of Endor are a staple of science fiction. With NASA's Kepler ...

Finding Twin Earths: Harder Than We Thought

March 20, 2009

( -- Does a twin Earth exist somewhere in our galaxy? Astronomers are getting closer and closer to finding an Earth-sized planet in an Earth-like orbit. NASA's Kepler spacecraft just launched to find such worlds. ...

Can we spot volcanoes on alien worlds? Astronomers say yes

September 7, 2010

Volcanoes display the awesome power of Nature like few other events. Earlier this year, ash from an Icelandic volcano disrupted air travel throughout much of northern Europe. Yet this recent eruption pales next to the fury ...

Kepler Set to Launch Tonight on Planet Finding Mission

March 6, 2009

( -- The Kepler spacecraft and its Delta II rocket are "go" for a launch tonight that is expected to light up the sky along Florida's Space Coast at 10:49 p.m. EST as the rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 17-B ...

Recommended for you

Astronomers identify purest, most massive brown dwarf

March 24, 2017

An international team of astronomers has identified a record breaking brown dwarf (a star too small for nuclear fusion) with the 'purest' composition and the highest mass yet known. The object, known as SDSS J0104+1535, is ...

Spacewalk a success for French, US astronauts

March 24, 2017

A French and an American astronaut floated outside the International Space Station Friday on a successful spacewalk to upgrade the orbiting outpost for the arrival of future space crews.

OSIRIS-REx asteroid search tests instruments, science team

March 24, 2017

During an almost two-week search, NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission team activated the spacecraft's MapCam imager and scanned part of the surrounding space for elusive Earth-Trojan asteroids—objects that scientists believe may ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
Other chemicals that are potential signatures of life include methane

What like Neptune?
4 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2010
The problem is just this:

Rocky Earth-like planets and ordinary meteorites are made mostly of elements that were produced near the core of a supernova: Fe, Ni, O, Si, S, Mg and Ca.

The main elements of life - H, C, N, and O - are abundant in giant gaseous Jupiter-like planets.

Fortunately these same elements form a thin veneer (biosphere) that covers the surface of our rocky planet.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
It's great to be able to find a rocky planet. Even if it has water, moderate temperatures, oxygen, carbon and nice oscillating seasons, we still won't know for a while whether life has began there. This is what I find so frustrating. Knowing that a planet meets all requirements would make me even more anxious to see what's there.
4 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2010
"What like Neptune?"

Methane, Carbon monoxide etc, in the presence of free oxygen...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.