Signs of life beyond Earth could be found within a decade under the most optimistic scenarios but the U.S. will need to keep up spending to maintain pace in a 21st century space race, astrobiologists told Congress on Wednesday.
Sara Seager, a physics and planetary science professor at MIT and recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant, said scientists never like to speculate, but said the discovery of simple life forms off elsewhere could occur in the relatively near future.
She told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that NASA's Kepler telescope has found that about 1 in 5 sunlike stars should host an Earth-size planet outside of our solar system that can sustain life.
Whether such a life form would be intelligent or primitive is unclear, but witnesses told the committee that the U.S. has to keep research thrusters at full throttle if such mysteries of the universe are to be uncovered.
The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, is capable of studying the atmospheres of such "exoplanets," and a separate mission scheduled for launch in 2017 will survey nearby stars for such planets.
Ms. Seager said finding actual life would probably take a telescope with technology beyond the capabilities of the Webb telescope, but once that happens, results could come in relatively quickly.
"Then once that one goes up, it would just be a matter of a few years to survey enough stars for planets and find them," she said. "The least optimistic case — we need to find out how to put a large mirror in space to search enough to have enough chance."
She also said continued research is necessary for the U.S. to stay competitive.
"We can never be too bold," she said. "As we all know, China's headed to the moon right now as we speak. And we see China, in the academic world — they're great at copying everything. But we haven't seen them really innovate. But you never know what the future holds."
Mary Voytek, a senior scientist at NASA, said astrobiology — the study of the origin and future of life in the universe — had a role in analyzing the extent of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and in technology used on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) rover, which made its dramatic touchdown on the red planet in the summer of 2012.
A few months ago, researchers reported that Curiosity's first sample of Martian soil was composed of about 2 percent water, astrobiologist Steven J. Dick said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mocked the Republicans for taking up the issue as Congress faces other matters such as immigration, a budget, and a farm bill.
"No wonder the American people think this Republican Congress is from another planet — they're more interested in life in space than Americans' lives," said Emily Bittner, a spokeswoman for the DCCC.
Nevertheless, the imaginations of both parties were clearly captured.
"I hope that Congress recognizes the vital contributions of ongoing and future NASA space science missions in answering whether there's life in the universe," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and the committee's ranking member.
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