The hunt for life on another planet has just begun, space experts say

(CNN) — Everyone has had the moment when they realize how vastly different their way of life is from the next world over. The sun, literally, is an enormous sphere of flame. We’re a speck of a planet, actually. And it feels strange that we live among these gaseous giants.

Soon, however, astronomers expect that the first observation of life in another part of the universe will stand out as significant, if not breathtaking. Of course, there’s no guarantee that intelligent creatures who live on worlds like ours are going to make it back to the visitor’s party. But the probability that some of our closest neighboring worlds might harbor the ocean dwellers who have once roamed the earth — and played an important role in its construction — will be a boon to our efforts to understand how life forms got started here.

This thought process has broad repercussions for a great many other scientific issues, ranging from advances in thinking about genetics to global warming to the effects of nuclear weapons.

A search for life on other worlds will continue to have the greatest immediate impact, however. And it will serve as one of the most important focus areas of astronomy in the coming decades.

A rare accomplishment

One characteristic of such alien worlds is that they’ll probably contain at least the kind of extreme environments we try to avoid here on Earth: supervolcanoes, extreme temperatures, toxic gases, active magma chambers, to name a few. So it’s no wonder that astrobiologists and other scientists have embarked on an ever-expanding list of quests, from looking for atmospheres (which might contain evidence for extant life) to understanding what would be the details of their biological processes. And some may end up yielding an object that could potentially be recognized as an alien life form.

It’s a rare accomplishment to find life on another world, and astrobiologists are hoping that the search for planets whose gas-giant inhabitants host the kinds of life that could have made this planet habitable has at last succeeded.

Such a discovery could provide “the missing link in the search for other habitable planets,” says Paul Hertz, a researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Some of the most promising places are believed to be in the “Goldilocks zone” of a star, where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water. But more often than not, planets end up too hot (or too cold) — either too close to their stars to support life as we know it, or too far away.

Finding the best places to search for life will help astronomers determine the strategies for future research, Hertz said. But it would also be one of the greatest gifts ever to humanity: to let us know that in this universe, this place, there’s still life.

— Written by Amanda Thomas, CNN.


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