Two months shy of turning 40, the MIT astronomer Sara Seager decided to throw herself a highly unconventional birthday party. She rented a wood-paneled auditorium in the university’s Media Lab. She invited a few dozen colleagues, including an influential former astronaut and the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. In lieu of presents, she asked 14 of her guests to respond to a challenge: help her plot a winning strategy to find another Earth, and do it within her lifetime.
“Hundreds or thousands of years from now, when people look back at our generation, they will remember us for being the first people who found the Earth-like worlds,” Seager began. She paced tightly, dressed all in black except for a long red-and-pink scarf, and spoke in her distinctive staccato voice into a hand-held microphone. “I’ve convened all of you here because we want to make an impact and we want to make that happen. We are on the verge of being those people, not individually but collectively.”
Think about this for a moment. Forget all the exoplanets we’ve found already – think of the implications of finding an Earth-size planet in another system, one in the habitable zone that shows spectral lines for water vapor and, say, chlorophyll in it’s atmosphere. Thing of what happens if we see spectra implying something is burning hydrocarbons in that atmosphere.
In fact, forget intelligent life. Imagine an exoplanet with evidence of any life at all. Think of the impact that will have on the world’s religious communities. Think of what it will mean to our perception of ourselves, knowing that in the broadest sense, we are not alone.
Isaac Asimov brilliantly titled one of his Empire novels The Stars, Like Dust. it will be amazing to find living beings on one of these otehr dust motes.