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'We Are Not Alone,' NASA Affirms Belief

Jul 15, 2014 11:04 AM EDT
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NASA says that finding life beyond Earth is within our reach, even if we cannot physically reach these exoplanets. Still, some experts might disagree that habitable planets are as common as NASA thinks.

Top NASA scientists and associates spoke at a panel to discuss to probability of alien life in the Universe on Monday.

According to Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore, the chance of finding life and habitable worlds seems far more realistic than it did five years ago now that experts think that 10 to 20 percent of the stars in the sky could host habitable planets.

"It's within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever," he said in a statement. "Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life. Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over - the possibility we're no longer alone in the Universe."

Mountain works with the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2018 to join space-based observatories already being used in the search for signatures of habitable conditions. These include include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Kepler Space Telescope.

"This technology we are using to explore exoplanets is real," added John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "The James Webb Space Telescope and the next advances are happening now. These are not dreams -- this is what we do at NASA."

Data from Kepler alone has already hugely improved our knowledge of exoplanets, finding the majority of the more than 5,000 potential exoplanets, of which more than 1,700 have been confirmed. Kepler observations even suggest that every single star in the Milky Way has one potentially habitual planet.

However, despite grandiose hopes, some experts are finding that the data can be deceiving. Two apparent "goldilocks" planets - "just right" for life - have recently been found to actually be simple blips of solar interference. Another recent study also claims that experts must rule out any potential exoplanets that orbit red dwarves - the most common star in the Universe - because of the remarkably violent solar winds that these stars create.

Still, according to the LA Times, NASA's Administrator Charles Bolden stood by a common adage on Monday.

"I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the Universe we humans stand alone."

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