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Search for life beyond Earth heating up

June 21, 2017

With NASA’s recent announcement of the discovery of 10 new planets that are Earth-like and in the so-called habitable zone around their stars—bringing the total of such exoplanets to more than 200—the search for life beyond Earth is entering a critical phase, a George Mason University professor said.

“Our ability to detect life elsewhere is rapidly improving,” said Mike Summers, a planetary scientist who specializes in the structure and evolution of planetary atmospheres. “If we do not detect life on other planets within the next few decades, then this will probably mean that life as we know it is extremely rare in the universe.”

NASA, through the first four years of its Kepler Space Telescope Mission, has discovered 2,335 planets in a single, small patch of sky.

“That means that roughly 10 percent of all planets [discovered] are Earth-like and habitable,” Summers said.

Add to that the entire Milky Way Galaxy, and Summers said the number of Earth-like planets increases to 40 billion.

“These latest results continue the trend in the discovery of extrasolar planets, and has shown that there are planets around just about every star,” said Summers, who with physicist and George Mason colleague James Trefil wrote the highly regarded book “Exoplanets: Diamond Worlds, Super Earths, Pulsar Planets, and the New Search for Life beyond Our Solar System.” “It shows that every star in the sky has, on average, about 10 planets, of which one or two are Earth-like.”

Summer said the scheduled October 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope should greatly improve NASA’s ability to detect life on other planets.

“But that is just the beginning,” Summers said. “NASA has plans for larger and more sensitive telescopes that will image these planets to detect continents, clouds and, perhaps, oceans on these worlds.”

“No one knows how soon we will discover life elsewhere,” Summers said. “But it is clear that our galaxy is rich in locales where life as we know it can exist and flourish.”

Mike Summers can be reached at msummers@gmu.edu or 703-993-3971.

James Trefil can be reached at jtrefil@gmu.edu or 703-993-2183.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at dcristod@gmu.edu or 703-993-9118.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.