Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 28, 2010

SETI scientist searches for life on other plants

Are we alone in the universe? This is a question that dates back to Ancient Greece, and perhaps even further. No society in history has come upon any definite answer. But scientists all over the world are trying to resolve that question. At this year’s homecoming, Knox hosted one of these scientists, Jeffrey Smith ’01, who works for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Cali. (not to be confused with SETI@Home, a related, but unaffiliated organization with a different approach towards finding alien life). In his opinion, “We live in an age where we might be able to get some answers.”

Smith’s talk was titled “Kepler: Are There Any Good Worlds Out There?” “Kepler” is the title of the particular project on which he works at the SETI Institute. The Kepler Mission’s ultimate goal is, of course, to find life somewhere else in the universe. Their particular approach, in this case, is to find other “earthlike” planets in the universe.

The mission’s approach is based on the work of Frank Drake, an American astrophysicist and one of the founders of the SETI Institute. Drake developed an equation that, in theory, could tell us the number of planets in the universe capable of sustaining life. The particulars of it are complicated, but let it suffice to say that scientists know very few of the variables to produce an answer. It manages to be both a testament to the limitations of human knowledge and a reminder that, with enough perseverance, researchers will find an answer.

“Our research aims at finding planets that have some basic criteria: air to breathe, some type of asteroid protection—for instance, a large planet nearby to collect meteors,— some kind of surface and the conditions for liquid water to form,” Smith said.

The universe is quite big, and humans cannot travel very far very cheaply to explore it, so researchers must rely on imaging devices such as telescopes to see if a planet has the right conditions for life.

“We operate a spacecraft in solar orbit that is essentially a big telescope. It has a wide field-of-view photometer [light-measuring device] that monitors over 100,000 stars for three and a half years to find earth-size planets,” Smith said.

Yes, the Kepler Mission studies stars to find planets. The “telescope” finds planets by recording when the light emitted by stars is interrupted. When light is interrupted, this means a planet is in orbit around that star.

“In the first 43 days of observation, the Kepler Mission found five transiting planets, but those planets had temperatures far too high to sustain life,” Smith said.

The array will study the same spot in the sky over its entire operational life (up to nine years, if NASA reapproves funding). Unimaginably large quantities of data are being gathered by the array, including data that could be of use to physicists studying areas other than extraterrestrial life. But, due to funding and technical restrictions, they can only extract five percent of the data the array collects.

Whether or not the Kepler mission completes its stated goal, it will certainly produce many new insights into the nature and composition of the universe. That alone will make the program a success.

“Keep an eye on the news in the coming months. Our understanding of the cosmos is about to expand tremendously,” he said.

Joshua Gunter
Joshua Gunter was the liberal half of "Debating Columnists" during fall 2012 and winter 2013. He graduated in winter 2013 with a degree in art history and currently works as an account researcher for the Brunswick Group in New York City. At Knox, he also served as co-editor-in-chief of Catch magazine.

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