Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe -- as well as another planet like our own -- are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.
That was the consensus of a panel on the search for life in the universe held at NASA headquarters Monday in Washington. The discussion focused not only on the philosophical question of whether we're alone in the universe but also on the technological advances made in an effort to answer that question.
"We believe we're very, very close in terms of technology and science to actually finding the other Earth and our chance to find signs of life on another world," said Sara Seager, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pluto, a distant icy dwarf planet, orbits the Sun 29 times farther out than the Earth and has estimated surface temperatures of -380 degrees Fahrenheit (-229 degrees Celsius). These frigid temperatures are far too cold to allow liquid water on Pluto's surface. Its location and small size make it very difficult to observe; however, with NASA's New Horizons mission slated to reach the distant world next year, scientists hope to map Pluto and its moons in great detail.
Current models predict one moon in particular, Charon, is of great interest to study. The models indicate Charon has surface fractures, indicative of a possible subsurface ocean. Further analysis is needed to determine in the moon's interior is warm enough to support liquid water.
The five exoplanets with hints of water are all scorching-hot, Jupiter-size worlds that are unlikely to host life as we know it. But finding water in their atmospheres still marks a step forward in the search for distant planets that may be capable of supporting alien life, researchers said.