06 Jun 2007

The Space Race to detect Life as we know it

Life on Mars? Or elsewhere?

Life on Mars? Or elsewhere?

For the first time in history, the dream of searching for signs of life in other solar systems belongs not only on the philosopher's wish list, or in the pages of science fiction books, but on the list of doable and planned human endeavours, most of all because something like 280 planets have so far been discovered orbiting alien stars.

The direct detection of Earth-like exo-planets orbiting nearby stars, and the characterisation of such planets - their evolution, atmospheres and ability to host life as we know it is one of mankind's great questions.

Open University Professors Glenn White and John Zarnecki were among space scientists who met the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Malcolm Wicks at the Department of Trade and Industry in London to talk about the UK's contribution to "Other Earth-like or Habitable Planets".

The meeting was designed to update The Minister on the current status and UK capability in this area, and also to convey proactively the value to society and excitement of this field.

Malcolm Wicks was told that remarkable advances had been made over the past few years in looking for stars that have planets and how we are beginning to find Earth like planets that might have liquid water, thought to be a key prerequisite of life.

Professor White

Professor White

Glenn White said that "a European Space Agency mission called Darwin, due for launch in 2018, will scan 500 stars over five years within a distance of 60 light years and study the light from 50 alien planets to seek signs of life".

He added that "Once the mission gets up, I am pretty sure that, if there is life out there, we are going to have an extremely high probability of telling you whether life has started on a planet, and that around 2020 we will have very definitive answers to these fundamental questions that impact understanding of mankind's true place in the Universe."

John Zarnecki said that "in 2015 a mission will land on Mars to dig two metres into the surface and use a package of instruments to look for life signs or biomarkers". He said that he had "high hopes" for a future mission to the icy Jupiter moon Europa too, and that we will find extinct or some life in the solar system or extrasolar systems*. He expressed a view that evidence for life on Mars will be found in 2015 and on Europa in 2023.

A straw poll of the scientists present, suggested they were almost all convinced of the existence of alien life, which the Minister said was "very interesting. As a lay person, that is how I would vote as well, given the vastness of space."

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