February 27, 2001

Cornell Professors Looking To Prove Extraterrestrial Life

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Cornell professors are searching the heavens for the presence of molecular oxygen and water that may lead to the discovery of life on other planets.

Using data collected from infrared (ISO) and submillimeter wave (SWAS) telescopes, Prof. emeritus Martin Harwit, astronomy, built a strong case at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual symposium for a space observatory to monitor and search planets outside the solar system for water and oxygen.

“We presented a set of satellite measurements that are beginning to tell us where various molecules that are important for the sustenance of life are present in the universe,” Harwit said.

Planets outside our solar system have never been viewed clearly, according to Harwit, due to the fact that the stars near them emit so much light it overwhelms the viewing possibilities of the planet. Therefore planets similar to Earth have never been investigated.

“We know very little about other planets like Earth. We know too little about small planets around other stars. That would be the main focus of this station,” Harwit said.

The data collected so far has shown molecular oxygen to be very scarce, at least 100 times less abundant than water vapor, which seems to be present in large quantities in certain regions of the galaxy, according to Gary Melnick of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that monitored the SWAS telescopes.

“We came up with the estimate of [an] Earth’s ocean worth of water vapor produced every few minutes. That would be enough water for if these interstellar clouds would collapse to a solar system it would form our system several times over,” he added.

The project itself would take years to put together and more to operate.

“What we really need to do is to think about this process as something that is going to take a number of steps from ten to twenty years,” said Prof. Paul Goldsmith, astronomy.

However, the evidence for the generation of life creating molecules in interstellar clouds is encouraging evidence for scientists who believe there is life on other planets.

“More than 100 different molecules have been found generated in interstellar clouds by non-biological chemistry. It’s very surprising that you can find molecules with up to 13 atoms in them,” Goldsmith said. Goldsmith said he is still unsure of whether there may be amino acids present in some galactic materials; these are the building blocks for proteins.

Surfaces have not been studied or analyzed to see if they contain any life originating molecules such as oxygen or water. Martin Kessler, who worked in the operation of the infrared telescope investigating interstellar clouds, presented the evidence for the presence of these molecules.

“Why water is abundant in some places and in other regions seems to be totally lacking is a question we need to answer. Because the regions between the stars are so cold it could be that the water is in solid form. One detects it in a different fashion; it’s easy to detect but harder to quantify,” Harwit said.

The main indication of life present on a planet is unusual concentrations of molecules normally found only sparsely throughout space.

“Let’s say you find another planet, you take its spectrum what’s in its atmosphere. If you can find evidence of things being out of equilibrium, one of the main suspect is that life is doing that,” Goldsmith said.

According to Harwit, astronomers at the symposium were “very enthusiastic” at the idea of combining the capabilities of both telescopes and other resources for a space observatory that can monitor other planets uninhibited by our atmosphere or humans.

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata