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In the 19th century, Congress held a hearing on spirits and spiritualism. There was much laughter and merriment about the hearing, and someone suggested that the hearing should take place in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

This week a hearing took place about non-earth life. It took place in House Science Committee and focused on astrobiology and the possible case for life on other planets. It was not the same merriment but some of the same curiosity as more than 150 years ago.

Every hearing on Capitol Hill must have a purpose. Chairman Lamar Smith’s, R-Texas, reason for having the hearing was to explore what is the future of our planet, how it evolved and if there is any chance of current or future of a habitable environment on other planets.

The United States has often been at the forefront of science, and astrobiology is an area in which the U.S. excels. One of the three witnesses, Dr. Sara Seager, who is a professor of planetary science at MIT, said, “If one in five sun-like stars have an Earth and every Earth has life, then we will find signs of life. The most optimistic [estimation to find life] would be within the decade.” She said our first discovery would most likely be a simple life form such as a microbe.

NASA’s Dr. Mary Voytek, senior scientist for astrobiology in the Planetary Science Division, said there are many candidate planets for potential life form, and the Kepler Mission found 833 candidate planets outside our solar system. “Ten of these candidates are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their star’s habitable zone. With Kepler’s help, more than 3,500 potential worlds have now been identified orbiting stars other than our sun, reminding us just how important NASA’s work is to understand the universe and the potential for life beyond our solar system.”

She said even before NASA was established, there were discoveries of complex organic molecules and that the discoveries from the search for life have already had huge implications for life on earth. These technologies include the technology developed by astrobiologists to find the extent of the Gulf oil spill in 2010 and the current and potential uses of findings from the Mars land rover “Curiosity,” including hazardous material identification, finding fake pharmaceuticals in developing countries as well as the possibility of finding valuable minerals on Mars.

Dr. Stephan Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg chair of astrobiology at the John W. Kluge Center (Library of Congress), focused on several issues important to those of us beings on earth. Mars had water and most likely still has, but its climate has changed and toxic chemicals are now present. Can that happen on earth? What would it mean to our survival? What knowledge can we gain from the evolution on Mars? Dr. Dick said a major focus of the astrobiology research is to focus ribonucleic acid, or RNA, a nucleic acid present in all living cells. RNA is vitally important to our current understanding of life and disease.

Many of us used our computers on off hours to help the government analyze data for extraterrestrial life with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program, which the government defunded. Dr. Dick urged the government to refund SETI and said our citizens would support it.

Although NASA does not have any current plans for a space shuttle, it is launching two missions, one in 2017 and one in 2018, with the use of space telescopes and the ability to analyze light spectrums to determine minerals and perhaps even life on a basic level. Dr. Voytek discussed the need to develop better imaging to determine exactly what is on these planets. She calls this “direct imaging.”

Most journalists went to the hearing because the consumers of our media like to hear and read about such things. It is, in a nutshell, more entertaining than what we hear from the day-to-day hearings in Congress. However, it has huge implications.

As I have written about before in this column, the spin-offs from NASA have added to our economy and quality of life. From simple daily technologies such as Velcro, to heart pumps and better artificial limbs to more obvious technologies such as GPS, the space program lived up to its early expectations.” The “space blanket,” which is often used in medical emergencies, is also from the work of NASA.

In addition, imaging technology, developed though DARPA has been used in the early detection of breast cancer. That is in addition to the hearing-stated purpose of finding the origins of life and perhaps habitable planets.

People laugh at the search for extraterrestrial life and further exploration of space as a waste of money. It is no laughing matter, and the findings could be vital to our lives and economy right here on Earth.

 

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