File - Drawing of how exoplanet 'PH2 b' might look from its moon (Univ. Oxford/Haven Giguere)
File - Drawing of how exoplanet 'PH2 b' might look from its moon (Univ. Oxford/Haven Giguere)
File – Drawing of how exoplanet ‘PH2 b’ might look from its moon (Univ. Oxford/Haven Giguere)

NASA scientists say they’re closer than ever to finding life beyond Earth.

At a July 14 panel discussion, several leading NASA scientists outlined the agency’s roadmap to find life and looked back on the discoveries that paved the way.

While NASA continues to look for life in the solar system, namely on Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the panel was focused on the search for life outside the solar system.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, opened the discussion saying “it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the universe we humans stand alone.”

One major advancement in the discovery of worlds outside the solar system has been the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009. It has been critical in expanding the knowledge of exoplanets, discovering most of the 5,000 potential exoplanets, 1,700 of which have been confirmed.

One of those planets is an Earth-size planet orbiting the habitable zone of a star. The habitable zone is the distance from a star where liquid water can exist. Liquid water is considered to be a key ingredient for life as we know it.

Kepler’s discoveries have led scientists to conclude that there are potentially billions of planets in the galaxy.

“Sometime in the near future, people will be able to point to a star and say, ‘that star has a planet like Earth’,” says Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a statement. “Astronomers think it is very likely that every single star in our Milky Way galaxy has at least one planet.”

A major step in discovering potential extraterrestrial life will be the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite in 2017, James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope – Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets early in the next decade.

These will eventually allow scientists to determine if an exoplanet has atmospheric water vapor or carbon dioxide and better measure other atmospheric chemicals.

“With the James Webb, we have the first capability of finding life on other planets, but we have to get lucky; we have to beat the odds,” said Seager.

The panel opened up to questions from the public, and a viewer asked if extraterrestrial life were discovered, would the government let the public know.

“Of course we would,” replied Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist.