Tabling Politics, Space Committee Digs Into Search for Life

WASHINGTON (CN) – Extraterrestrial life and exoplanets, time travel and even a moment of metaphysical introspection on “the search for life” in other galaxies dominated a hearing Wednesday of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

In an uncharacteristically optimistic, even jovial at times, session, members of Congress plied a panel of experts on what they hope to do with the information they have unearthed from the recent discovery of seven Earth-size planets orbiting Trappist-1, a dim dwarf star barely the size of Jupiter.

This illustration provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows an artist’s conception of what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about their diameters, masses and distances from the host star. The planets circle tightly around a dim dwarf star called Trappist-1, barely the size of Jupiter. Three are in the so-called habitable zone, where liquid water and, possibly life, might exist. The others are right on the doorstep. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

NASA announced the discovery in February. The cluster of planets, less than 40 light years away from Earth, are in a habitable zone where water and possibly, life, might exist.

Posing a contrast to the austere forecast for science funding in the new administration, the committee appeared receptive to the call by scientists for further investment into space exploration.

A line of questioning started by Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., drew colorful testimony from Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI Institute, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence in space.

As data from the Trappist-1 discovery emerges, Shostak noted, mankind could confront a persistent existential question: if we find what we’re looking for, proof of life or intelligence in space, what does humanity do with this information?

“When people at cocktail parties ask, ‘What if you did find a signal? The government would shut you down!’ I tell them, first of all, the government doesn’t even know what we’re doing, and if the government did know what we were doing, they wouldn’t be interested. Maybe just the New York Times,” Shostak said. “But even if they were interested, to think the public couldn’t handle this, that’s totally false. If you open your browser tomorrow morning and it says we’ve found a signal from 800 light years away, I doubt you’d say, ‘I’m not going to work today, I’m going to riot out in the streets.'”

Beyer asked Shostak for his perspective on scientists who argue the point that, if life did exist out in the ether, we surely would have heard about it by now.

“That’s like going to Africa, looking for a big, long-nosed mammal who can pick up peanuts with that nose, and quitting after you’ve only looked at one city’s block worth of real estate,” Shostak quipped. “There are a trillion planets in our galaxy and two trillion other galaxies, which each contain one trillion planets. To say all of it sterile is a bit self-centered if you ask me.”

This image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows an artist’s conception of what the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f may look like, based on available data about its diameter, mass and distances from the host star. The planets circle tightly around a dim dwarf star called Trappist-1, barely the size of Jupiter. Three are in the so-called habitable zone, where liquid water and, possibly life, might exist. The others are right on the doorstep. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator and science director for NASA, has high hopes for the James Webb Space Telescope, operated with help from Northrup Grumman and the Space Telescope Science Institute. Set to launch in October 2018 from French Guiana, the U.S.-Europe-Canada collaboration will serve as the primary observatory for thousands of astronomers not headed for space.

With its infrared gaze and system of light weight mirrors, the Webb telescope will be able to detect even the faintest signals.

“When we look at the first emissions using the James Webb Telescope, and some other of our other best telescopes that we’re building now … it will cause a rapid rush forward that is typical in this kind of research,” he said. “For me, that’s one of the amazing parts of this research because it causes so much innovation. The first planet found orbiting a star was in 1995. It’s a little bit over 20 years ago and look where we are today. We never even knew to look at dwarves then because we didn’t know how. And that’s where the mother lode is.”

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