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An institute dedicated to searching for alien life in the cosmos has been renamed in honor of the late astrophysicist and science popularizer Carl Sagan.
Cornell University's Institute for Pale Blue Dots has been renamed the Carl Sagan Institute: Pale Blue Dots and Beyond to honor the legacy of Carl Sagan. At an inaugural event for the institute held today (May 9) at Cornell, Sagan's wife and frequent collaborator, Ann Druyan, revealed the institute's new name.
"There's a meta quality to this day," Druyan said in a statement from the institute. "Honoring Carl by empowering interdisciplinary scientists to search for the answers to his most passionate scientific questioning, seeking to share that understanding with the public and finding in that knowledge to life-threatening dangers here on Earth — that's a multileveled and highly accurate reflection of who Carl was."
"From the moment I first met astrophysicist Lisa Kaltenegger, the Carl Sagan Institute's founding director, I recognized one of Carl's kindred," said Druyan, who is also an Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer and producer. "It's thanks to her that his legacy is being given such vibrant expression here at Cornell."
Sagan was a faculty member at Cornell beginning in 1968. He was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies there until his death in 1996.
Kaltenegger said it was Druyan who not only inspired the name change, but directly requested it. Shortly after the institute's founding in 2014, Kaltenegger invited Druyan to visit and speak to the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who were being funded by the institute.
"She's such an amazing person; I'd never met her before," Kaltenegger said. "And [talking to the students] she said, 'You know what? If Carl was alive, this is what he would love to do.' And then, she turned around and said, 'Would you mind naming it after Carl Sagan? This is exactly his vision that you're bringing to life here.' And there was kind of a pause, and I said, 'No, I wouldn't mind.' I was a little bit blown away. She said she was saving the name for something. And I was like, 'Wow.'"
Kaltenegger happily obliged Druyan's request.
The institute was founded with the goal of taking an interdisciplinary approach to the search for life elsewhere in the universe, according to Kaltenegger. Researchers who have joined the institute have backgrounds in astrophysics, engineering, geology, biology and earth science, according to the statement from Cornell.
"We're basically pulling everything in. We're bringing a lot of very smart people into a room […] to address that whole overarching question: life on other planets, in our solar system and outside — how can we detect it?" Kaltenegger told Space.com. "The institute is basically an umbrella that facilitates it so that [those people] can all work together."
Currently, the institute is funding a small group of undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers. Faculty members who belong to the institute already have established positions at Cornell. Kaltenegger said there are plans to expand the institute's funding, and to bring in members from other institutions.
The institute has already produced a "color catalog" that could help scientists look for signs of life on alien planets. A planet that is dominated by a certain type of plant life or microorganism could have a distinct color signature that scientists could potentially observe. (Earth, for example, would have a green color because it is covered mainly by green plant life.) The catalog contains color spectra for more than 100 different life-forms and is the first catalog of its kind, according to Kaltenegger.
The phrase "pale blue dot" refers to the appearance of Earth from afar. It originated with a photograph of Earth taken Feb. 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of about 3.7 billion miles (5.95 billion kilometers) from Earth. Sagan further popularized the phrase with his book "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space" (Random House, 1994).
Other speakers at the inauguration event included David Latham, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Aleksander Wolszczan, director of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Pennsylvania State University; Bill Borucki, principal investigator for the Kepler mission at NASA's Ames Research Center; and Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative.
Tiny, microbial life could be swarming deep below the surface of Mars or swimming in the underground oceans on Saturn's moon Enceladus, but that's not where we're likely to find the first life forms beyond earth.
The bad news is that the first alien life forms humankind will likely discover will be too far away to ever visit. But the great news is that we could detect these exotic beings extremely soon:
"I think we're probably going to be able to detect life on another planet in the next decade or so," Christopher Impey, who is an astronomer at the University of Arizona and author of over a dozen popular science books, told Business Insider. The way we're going to do it is "by exploring exoplanets that we're discovering in large numbers."
Exoplanets are planets that exist outside of our solar system. The closest exoplanet we know of so far is actually orbiting one of the nearest stars Alpha Centauri B about 4.3 light years from earth, but it would take current spacecraft technology well over 100,000 years to reach it.
Discovering another life force beyond earth is going to be difficult no matter where astronomers look, but exoplanets have several advantages.
First, there are more earth-like exoplanets in our galaxy than in our solar system. Indeed, earth is the only real earth-like planet nearby, with Mars as a close but pretty disappointing second. As of right now, there are over 45 exoplanets in our galaxy thought to be potentially habitable.
Another advantage is that scientists can search for life on exoplanets more inexpensively and efficiently with instruments on earth than searching for them in our solar system.
In contrast, large government agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency will likely have to land a robotic probe on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, or some of the other promising places in our solar system, to discover evidence of life. (The one exception could be Saturn's water-rich moon Enceladus.) As of right now, the only lander mission on the books for NASA is their Mars 2020 mission, which won't be able to dig deep enough underground to search for signs of life, Impey suspects. That's why exoplanets are so promising.
"They're billion-dollar, decade-long missions and NASA's budget is so tight that you can only do one big thing at a time," Impey told Business Insider about missions to land a probe on a nearby planet or moon. "I think the project that will get there first is looking for earth-like exoplanets and inspecting their atmospheres."
With powerful telescopes on earth, scientists can sniff out alien life across the galaxy by inspecting the different cocktail of gases in these planets' atmospheres. Only planets with certain key elements and molecules will have the potential to spawn and sustain life.
The chemical recipe for life
However, scientists are still debating what that perfect cocktail is.
For example, until last year, the detection of oxygen — an crucial element for life on earth — within an exoplanet's atmosphere would have been an extremely exciting discovery and widely considered a sure sign for life.
But in May, 2014 a pair of researchers — Robin Wordsworth and Raymond Pierrehumbert — suggested that worlds with large amounts of liquid water could still have lots of oxygen but be completely devoid of life. That's because light from the planet's star could have enough energy to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms making up water vapor in the atmosphere, where the hydrogen could then escape to space, leaving behind the oxygen.
"Any claims about the remote detection of life beyond the solar system would be open to a lot of close scrutiny," Jack O'Malley-James told New Scientist for an article about the study. "So knowing more about the non-biological sources of atmospheric gases, coupled with methods for ruling those sources out, would help to make those claims more robust."
Although it's unclear exactly what chemicals might show signs of life, Impey says that we should be looking for molecules like ozone (O3) and methane (CH4).
A new fleet of gigantic, revolutionary telescopes
While scientists like Wordsworth and Pierrehumbert are investigating what to look for, astronomers and engineers are working on the tools we'll use in the search for life outside our solar system by building the largest, most powerful telescopes in history.
"[Exoplanets] are far away and they're very faint," Impey told Business Insider. "You need a huge collecting area to get the light from a distance of an earth-like planet."
The collecting area of a telescope refers to the size of the part of the instrument, called the mirror, which collects the light from distant objects. Astronomers will then study this light to detect different chemical signatures in the atmosphere. Similar to how each human has a unique thumbprint, each element has a specific light signature, which astronomers can detect through a method called spectroscopy.
But, it's going to take the most powerful telescopes in history to detect the faint light signatures of these molecules on distant exoplanets. Right now, astronomers at institutes across the globe are building three gigantic, next-generation telescopes, two in Chile and one in Hawaii:
originally posted by: Kratos40
a reply to: JadeStar
I have a feeling that we may find signs of life on other star systems in the next couple of decades. With the imminent launch of the JWST and other telescopes coming on line soon, we might get that answer. There has to be Type 1 and Type 2 civilizations out there considering the age of the universe.
If they find Earth-like rocky planets with atmospheres containing significant levels of oxygen and CO2, that would be huge news.
originally posted by: rockpaperhammock
a reply to: Kratos40
I agree and think you will see it spring just like planets...once we got a couple good telescopes up there we started seeing planets quite often. Every other week was something about a new planet or new info on that planet....I think itll be the same with life once we figure out the best instruments to use for it.
originally posted by: Kratos40
a reply to: raikata
After looking at the specs of the JWST it will be 1000x stronger than the Hubble. It is more for Deep Space viewing than for looking at individual star systems or planets.
Other specialized telescopes and satelites are tuned to analyzing the spectrograms emitted from extra-terrestial atmospheres.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space