Science Committee Examines Astrobiology Research and the Search for Life in the Universe

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Publication date: 
29 May 2014

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on May 21 to review the current state of astrobiology.  Members were interested in hearing about the use of radio and optical astronomy in the search for intelligent life.  In 2013, the Committee held two hearings relating to astrobiology: in May they discussed necessary conditions for life and a December hearing focused on methods used to search for microbial life.  During this most recent hearing, both sides of the aisle were interested in the likelihood of discovering other life in the universe, what resources and techniques are necessary to do so and current progress in the field of astrobiology. 

“Finding other sentient life in the universe would be the most significant discovery in human history,” stated Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) as he discussed astrobiology and telescope facilities.  “The unknown and unexplored areas of space spark human curiosity,” he continued.  The recent discovery of an Earth-like planet, Kepler 198f, orbiting its star and where water could potentially be present was one highlighted by Smith. 

Two witnesses testified.  Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute predicted that scientists will find other life within approximately 20 years depending on funding levels for future research.  He described the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence noting that 70 percent of the stars in the universe have planets.  The media and entertainment industry, he noted, have significantly increased the public’s interest in space and the search for other life. 

Dan Werthimer, Director of SETI Research at the University of California Berkeley spoke about fostering the public interest and using home computers to analyze data.  The SETI@home screensaver program allows users to analyze large amounts of data from several telescopes.  The screensaver program automatically downloads a small chunk of our data and goes to work searching for a rich variety of signal types. When the analysis is completed, typically after a few days, the program sends back the results of the analysis to our database, and the screen saver program gets a new chunk of data to work on,” he explained.  Werthimer also discussed the Panchromatic SETI project aimed at observing nearby stars as well as the interplanetary eavesdropping program used to search for radio signals travelling between two planets. 

Questions from Members demonstrated an interest in the search for extraterrestrial life.  Smith asked about the possibility of microbial or intelligent life and both witnesses agreed that the probability of finding such life is high.  Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) asked about the status of research and how it is conducted using available tools.  She also wanted to discuss the value of what might be learned from discovering extraterrestrial life.  Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked witnesses to comment on what steps would be necessary in the event of finding life to which the witnesses commented on the value of the telescope facilities and noted that two observatories may be forced to close due to inadequate funding levels.

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