Originally created 07/14/01

Congress welcomes testimony on search for alien life



WASHINGTON -- Seven years after members of Congress rejected research into extraterrestrial life as a search for "little green men," lawmakers encouraged scientists in their efforts to find life beyond the Earth.

"The discovery of life in the universe would be one of the most astounding discoveries in human history," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said Thursday at a hearing of the House space science subcommittee. "Funding should match public interest and I don't believe it does."

Smith said that since funds for the search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI) were booted out of the federal budget in 1994, "the SETI credibility has been enhanced."

Four scientists appearing as witnesses said that in the last five years the concept that life exists beyond the Earth has been boosted by dramatic discoveries both on Earth and in space.

Among the advances cited:

- At least 50 planets have been found in orbit of distant, sun-like stars in the last five years and researchers now believe that solar systems may be common through out the universe. Finding planets was considered an essential step toward finding life.

"All of these planets are Jupiter-size or larger," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "No Earth-like planets have been found, but we don't yet have the technology" to detect planets the size of Earth in orbit of distant stars.

However, Weiler said that a space observatory now being built will be able to search for the chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of planets up to 50 light years away.

- Liquid water is considered an essential chemical for the development of life and it has been found now on moons of Jupiter and in orbit of at least one distant star. Also, there is strong proof that water was once common on Mars and there are plans to search beneath the Martian surface for evidence of water, the most likely place for life on the Red Planet.

- Detailed studies of galaxies suggest that the formation of planets and solar systems may be common. The Hubble space telescope has captured many images of stars surrounded by the dust and gas clouds thought to be precursors for planets.

- Researchers have found bacteria that live in the coldest of salt water, in the deep pressure and heat of volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean, and in the most acid of environments. Since life is possible in such hostile environments on Earth, then it may also have developed in extreme conditions that may exist on other planets.

In 1994, some members of Congress ridiculed the SETI Institute and its efforts to detect radio signals from alien civilizations, calling the effort "a search for little green men."

The SETI concept fell so far out of favor that the National Science Foundation put a notation on its Web site that proposals for SETI research were not welcome.

Christopher F. Chyba, a leader of the SETI Institute in California, said that since losing its congressional funding, the program has been supported by private donations, has about 120 employees, and is regularly searching for signals on two million radio channels using a major radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

Chyba said SETI, in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, is now building a $30 million radio telescope array that will be able to listen to signals from the nearest one million stars in many channels.

And, said Chyba, the NSF has now removed its restriction on funding of SETI research. Proposals for SETI research now compete for funding "on a level playing field" with other research proposals, he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said it was impressive that SETI continued to thrive even though federal funds were cut off, and she said the federal government should not be biased toward the research.

"We need to let the federal agencies know that bias against SETI research is not favored," said Lofgren. "No member of this committee wants bias against any good science."

On the Net:

NASA Science: http://www.science.nasa.gov/

Extra Solar planets: http://exoplanets.org/