Monday, October 6, 2014

Canada Leading Telescopic Discovery For Extraterrestrials

Canada is contributing to a new space telescope that one scientist says may help in the search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

The Canadian Space Agency is providing a number of devices for the $8-billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in 2018.

The contributions include two cameras and one of the four science instruments on board the telescope.

A keynote speaker at a public science symposium in Montreal this Monday and Tuesday is hoping the telescope and others in the future will help lead to finding signs of life beyond Earth.

"A lot is riding on that telescope — including possibly the discovery of life," said Sara Seager, a Toronto-born professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We do have a chance to find life, would be like winning the lottery five times in a row.

"I'll say that in the next 10 years, we'll have the capability to find signs of life on an exoplanet far away — if it's out there."

Since the 1990s, a number of exoplanets — planets that revolve around stars other than the sun — have been detected by space satellites.

Last April, an Earth-sized planet was discovered orbiting around a star in a region that scientists said had the proper temperature to support life.

Seager, who was named in Time Magazine's 2012 list of the 25 most influential space experts, said scientists are focused on finding gases in a planet's atmosphere.

"We do know that life on our own Earth, including us humans to some extent, produce gas as a byproduct of living and that's what we're looking for."

While rocky planets that could host life are very common, Seager cautioned that scientists aren't searching for aliens.

"We all want to talk to aliens, we all want to find intelligent life or little green people," she said. "That's not what we're looking for, from the astronomers' point of perspective."

The scientific focus on exoplanets also gets the nod from Jill Tarter, another scientist who will speak at the McGill University-organized symposium entitled "Are We Alone? Searching For Life Out There."

"We're delighted, I mean exoplanets are real," she said in an interview from California. "When we started this we didn't know that."

Tarter is best known for her involvement in SETI, the Center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It has been scanning the heavens with its alien-hunting radio telescopes since the 1980s.

Tarter would not say if she believes there is life beyond Earth, preferring to let the space community do its work.

"Scientists and engineers have tools that can actually explore, they can make observations," she said. "And so...let's see what's actually out there."

Yet Tarter, who says her work was portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact," isn't about to call it quits any time soon in the search for life beyond Earth.

"Oh, no, no, I may run out of money, but I haven't given up," she added.


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