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Congress Looks to the Stars for Intelligent Life

WASHINGTON (CN) - Dreams and jokes about finding intelligent extraterrestrial life punctuated a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing on astrobiology and the search for biosignatures in space.

"I'd like to ask one question on behalf of the whole Republicans and Democrats: Do you think there's life out there? And are they studying us, and what do they think about New York City?" asked Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, during the Committee on Science, Space and Technology hearing on Wednesday.

Both the gallery and panel of witnesses - two top astrobiologists from NASA and an MIT professor of physics and planetary science - chuckled at the questions Hall posed.

"Well, let me just say that in our own Milky Way galaxy there are 100 billion stars, and we now believe in our universe that we have 100 billion galaxies," Dr. Sara Seager of MIT answered. "So if you just do the math, the chance that there is another planet like Earth out there with life on it is very high."

Hall, who at 90 is the oldest member of Congress, quipped: "I didn't do the math. There's just three things about math I couldn't do and that's add and subtract."

Seager joined Dr. Mary Voytek and Dr. Steven Dick in calling on Congress for continued support for the astrobiology community, which most members seemed willing to provide.

Voytek, senior scientist of astrobiology for NASA, said the recent discoveries of Earth-like planets orbiting in habitable zones of their solar systems could hold answers to problems we have on our own planet, like how to adapt to more extreme living conditions.

Dick, an astrobiologist with the Library of Congress and former NASA historian, said he'd like to see a voyage soon to Jupiter's moon Europa, which scientist have recently discovered has a subsurface ocean with deep currents and circulation patterns with heat and energy transfers that could sustain life.

All of the committee members expressed their desire to continue with the country's exploratory spirit, but some questioned the cost of such an endeavor.

"I think you have the same problem we've had, this Congress has had, with the last three or four presidents, asking them for more money for this thrust in space," Hall said. "If we had this x number of millions or billions then we'd might not be begging Russia for a ride there and back up to the space station."

Regardless of the cost concerns, Seager said astrobiologists need the next generation telescope - one even bigger than the $8 billion James Webb space telescope set to launch in 2018 - to better understand the known Earth-like planets.

Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., asked the panelists their opinion on what they considered the most pressing threat to human beings, citing a hearing by the same committee earlier this year exploring the threat of city-destroying asteroids. While Dick agreed with Posey that asteroids were perhaps the greatest threat to our species, Seager and Voytek both said overpopulation and limited resources are more dangerous.

Both Republicans and Democrats express wonderment in the subject during the two-hour hearing, with partisan jabs absent from the discourse in stark contrast to the five-hour hearing held by the Judiciary Committee the day prior on whether President Barack Obama abuses his constitutional powers.

"It's fun to leave a hearing and feel like you don't want to throttle the other side," Utah Republican Chris Stewart said.

Stewart asked the panel what astrobiologists plan to do in the event that intelligent extraterrestrial life is found.

Dick answered that the United Nations has protocols on such a discovery that would require publicizing the event, though he cautioned that finding such a species would be difficult because of the perfect conditions that must be present for such a being to evolve.

"Microbial life would be more likely than intelligent life," said Dick, "because intelligence is harder to find."

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