In the following video, Steven Vogt of the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of California Observatories and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington join National Science Foundation’s Lisa-Joy Zgorski to announce the discovery of the first exoplanet that has the potential to support life. The exoplanet was found in the star system of Gliese 581. It’s discovery is based on 11 years of observations from the Keck I Telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. A press release by the National Science Foundation announcing the discovery is available here.
Princeton University has just announced a “Planets and Life” Certificate program in astrobiology that offers students an interdisciplinary approach to the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing throughout the universe. Astrobiology, or ‘exobiology’ as it first developed, is a scientific discipline that by definition is interested in the biology of life beyond our planet. Astrobiology is attracting growing student and scientific attention due to the ongoing discovery of exoplanets. A recent announcement from scientists working on the Kepler Space Telescope that rocky earth-like planets are more prevalent than gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn, has fueled scientific speculation that suitable life-bearing conditions are far more common than previously thought. This has led to the realization that due to the advanced age of some solar systems, older and more advanced intelligent life very likely can be found elsewhere in the galaxy. Astrobiology conferences organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science in November 2009, and the Royal Society of London in January 2010 began the task of exploring the implications of extraterrestrial life found elsewhere in the galaxy. According to the Planets and Life Certificate program Director, Astrophysics Professor Adam Burrows, “Biology is experiencing a great renaissance â€¦ there are a lot of people making this the focus of their scientific work … It’s the fastest growing field in astronomy.”
The student body at Princeton, a private university that relies on student tuition for operational expenses, was a key factor in the development of the Life and Planets astrobiology program. It was students who had earlier completed one of the courses taught by evolutionary biology professor Laura Landweber, that formed an Astrobiology Club and pushed for the creation of the certificate program. Professor Landweber’s course, AST 255 “is an introduction to astrobiology and explores topics like the origin of life on Earth and the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Mars and Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.” Clearly, the question of life on Mars and elsewhere in our solar system is something that continues to inspire keen student interest.
A key aspect of the new astrobiology program is that it will be interdisciplinary. According to the Princeton University News Release, the program allows “students to take cognate courses in nine departments: astrophysics, chemistry, ecology and evolutionary biology, geosciences, molecular biology, mechanical and aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, chemical and biological engineering, and computer science.” Noticeably missing from the list of departments are the social sciences of political science and sociology.
Most recently, Professor Stephen Hawking, a member of the Royal Society of London that sponsored the January 2010 astrobiology conference, took scientific speculation on extraterrestrial life to its logical conclusion by introducing political and sociological questions. He asked what would they be like in terms of their motivations, and would their political agenda involve resource acquisition to the degree that they might threaten the earth? Hawking’s introduction of political and sociological questions to the study of extraterrestrial life is part of the nascent field of exopolitics which has yet to be formally acknowledged by Princeton or any other university. While Princeton’s astrobiology certificate for the moment emphasizes the natural sciences in its interdisciplinary program, it’s hard to justify the exclusion of exopolitical questions when the world’s foremost astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, is explicitly raising such questions. Princeton University is to be congratulated for creating a pioneering interdisciplinary certificate program in the growing field of astrobiology. With time, however, the program will need to expand its certificate program in order to systematically address exopolitical questions, that cannot and should not be excluded from an interdisciplinary study of extraterrestrial life in the Galaxy.
[Special Notice: The author teaches a course in the Exopolitics Institute’s Certification Program titled: The Science, Spirituality and Politics of Extraterrestrial Life. Fall Semester clases have just begun. More info here.] Further Reading
Video has recently emerged of a speech by Professor Dimitar Sasselov, Harvard astronomer and co-investigator of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, where he declared that the "Galaxy is rich in small, Earth-like planets." His speech was given at a Technology Entertainment and Design conference at Oxford University in mid-July where speakers are limited to 18 minutes on the latest scientific trends. The Kepler telescope uncovered evidence of up to 140 different planets similar in size to the Earth. Sasselov believes that the discovery amounts to a Copernican revolution where a clear affirmative answer is given to the question: “Are there other Earth like planets out there that can harbor life?” Significantly, Sasselov asserts that the evidence points to more earth-like planets in the galaxy than gas giants as previously thought. Estimates of earth-like planets in the galaxy could be quickly revised up to 100 million or more. Most importantly, he says that the data allows scientists to scan exoplanets for tell tale signs of life. Sasselov’s findings is good news for researchers in the fields of astrobiology and exopolitics since it encourages more scientific inquiry into the implications of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Sasselov’s speech was quickly featured in the international media with bold headlines such as Britain’s Daily Mail that “More than 100 'Earth-like' planets discovered in past few weeks." Not so fast according to Space.com.
What Dimitar presented was 'candidates,'" said David Koch, the mission's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "These have the apparent signature we are looking for, but then we must perform extensive follow-up observations to eliminate false positives, such as background eclipsing binaries. This requires substantial amounts of ground-based observing which is done primarily in the summer observing season."
Indeed, Sasselov confirmed that more work was to be done over the summer to confirm what the Kepler data was suggesting, and that more news was “to come later in the year!"
That did not however stop Sasselov commenting on the significance of what has been discovered so far. He said that smaller rocky Earth like planets were statistically more common than gas giants: "Even before we have confirmed the planets among these hundreds of candidates, we can see statistically that the smaller-sized planets will be more common than the large-sized (Jupiter- and Saturn-like ones) in the sample,"
Sasselov explained that the results so far of the Kepler mission heralded a Corpernican revolution. Just as Corpernicus revolutionized astronomy by publishing data that the solar system rotated around the sun, rather than the earth, so too the data from the Kepler mission would lead to another scientific revolution. Rather than planets like earth being unique or an uncommon occurrence in the galaxy, they in fact are plentiful. Sasselov declared in his speech that the “Galaxy is rich in small, Earth-like planets”
While more scientific investigation will occur in the months ahead to confirm the results of the Kepler mission so far, its implications are enormous. Astrobiologists will be able to conclude with great confidence that extraterrestrial life is certain to exist elsewhere in the galaxy. Importantly, for the field of exopolitics, intelligent extraterrestrial life will also be deemed certain to exist, and this has profound social and political implications for humanity. In April 2010, Prof Stephen Hawking claimed it was “perfectly rational” to discuss the motivations of advanced extraterrestrial life. The findings of the Kepler mission make inquiry into the possible motivations of intelligent extraterrestrial life not only “perfectly rational" but now a logical necessity. The Kepler space telescope results will not only bring about an astronomical revolution, but a revolution in social and political thought about technologically advanced intelligent life in the galaxy and its impact on humanity.