Astronomers: Finding alien life is our future

Searching for life in the universe is the most important astronomy task for future generations, according to an American Astronomical Society panel of scientists.

“We are all interrelated,” said Andrew Howard, who has studied exoplanets. “If we don’t understand the things that affect us, we’re missing a major part of our potential as humans.”

The big question in the universe, he said, is whether there is life beyond Earth.

“The astronomical community and broader society want to answer that question,” Howard said Friday at the group’s 100th meeting in Phoenix.

The future, he said, is about gathering data.

“We want to know as much as we can about planets orbiting around stars in our own part of the universe,” he said. “We’re searching for a simple answer to a really important question.”

Scientists should focus on exoplanets, also known as exoplanets, which are sun-like stars like our sun but orbiting close to their respective stars. Astronomers are beginning to detect exoplanets in the habitable zone of their parent stars, where conditions are suitable for life, according to the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The research provides evidence that any star can harbor rocky planets that could potentially support life.

Recent discoveries of ultra-Earths, smaller planets outside the habitable zone, have turned up evidence of iron, sulfur and carbon, which could have been transported to the planets through the impact of a large object, Howard said.

In response to speculation that alien life is likely to evolve in environments similar to our own, Howard recommends this mindset: “Let’s talk about it – what can we do to make it better and cooler.”

“What I do not want to happen is, instead of discovering that there is life out there somewhere, we destroy our own planet,” he said.

The Hubble Space Telescope will celebrate its 30th anniversary in May, Howard said.

The AAS meeting, scheduled Friday through Monday, focuses on using astronomy to lead humanity to “a brighter future.”

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