Exo-Planets Could Hold Key in Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Aug 8, 2013

An astrophysicist says the search for extraterrestrial life is about to get interesting.

The "gap" in this young star's surrounding disc of gas and dust indicates that new exo-planets are being made.
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

Any successful search for extraterrestrial life that is similar to that here on earth requires finding planets outside of our solar system that could support it. There are many thousands of planets within observable distance to the earth, but most of these exo-planets do not have the requisite earth like properties to sustain carbon-based life forms.

Dr. David Latham is leading a team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that is searching for and confirming the existence of exo-planets that are similar to earth.

"I like to say we live at a very special time in the history of astronomy," he says. "We are poised to find planets enough like the earth that we could imagine them being comfortable for life as we know it."

Latham, who is also senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, says researchers are looking for small planets with surfaces, not large gaseous planets. They could be rocky and even have water, but mostly they must have "the kind of material you need for the invention of life."

Latham says researchers hope to soon be able to conduct spectroscopies. This process analyzes planets' atmospheres to detect gas molecules produced by life forms.

"We are very close to being able to do that - identify, discover and characterize such planets," he says.

That aside, Latham says it's still going to be a long time before researchers can send anybody to such an exo-planet. Even if one were found in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, it's more likely probes would be sent instead.

"It's not against the law of physics, but it might be against the law of economics," he says. "Will our society be interested in funding that kind of endeavor?"

Latham was in Milwaukee this spring to give the eighth annual Coyne Lecture in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Marquette University.

This interview originally aired on June 6, 2013.