Committee Examines Advances in Astrobiology Research

May 21, 2014

Washington, D.C. – The Science, Space, and Technology Committee today held a hearing to review the current state of the science related to the search for life in the universe, including radio and optical astronomy techniques.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “The unknown and unexplored areas of space spark human curiosity.  Whether life exists on other planets in the universe continues to be a matter of debate among scientists. The United States has pioneered the field of astrobiology and continues to lead the world in this type of research. Finding other sentient life in the universe would be the most significant discovery in human history.”

Discoveries made by the Kepler space telescope of more than 1,700 planets within the Milky Way galaxy renewed interest in the search for life in the universe. Scientists estimate that there are 800 billion stars in the Milky Way. Last month, astronomers discovered the first Earth-like planet orbiting its star at a distance where liquid water could be present, a condition thought essential to life. Called Kepler 186f, it is only 10 percent larger than Earth and is 490 light years away.

Witnesses today said that scientists conduct either targeted searches or sky surveys to search for emitted signals. Targeted searches are longer searches in a fixed location. Sky surveys are brief sweeps of the entire sky. Other astronomers search for laser light pulses, instead of radio waves. Researchers at the SETI Optical Telescope use optical telescopes to try to detect nanosecond pulses or flashes of light distinct from pulsars or other naturally occurring phenomena.

Radio astronomy studies the radio frequencies of celestial bodies. Astronomical phenomenon, such as stars, galaxies, pulsars and quasars, emit radio waves of varying lengths. Radio telescopes detect these different frequencies, and astronomers use this data to characterize bodies and take scientific measurements used to understand the formation and expansion of the universe.

Today’s hearing follows a May 2013 hearing that explored the search for exoplanets, as well as a December 2013 hearing that reviewed the different methods astrobiologists use to search for microbial life on exoplanets, including biosignatures.

The following witnesses testified today:

Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute

Dr. Dan Werthimer, Director of SETI Research at the University of California Berkeley

For additional information about the hearing please visit the Science, Space, and Technology Committee website.