Researchers look to the stars this summer in search of extraterrestrial life

Kevin Dural

Does life exist on other planets? Leading researchers across multiple disciplines at UT-Austin are coming together in an effort to settle this question once and for all.

The Office of the Vice President for Research will host a pop-up institute exploring extraplanetary habitability for six weeks this June and July. Held across the University’s main campus and J.J. Pickle Research Campus, a 30-minute bus ride away, the institute will host keynote speakers and chief researchers. The institute, which will feature informal discussions designed to engage audience members, held a town hall meeting on Monday where leaders listened to suggestions from students and professors.

The pop-up institute welcomes everyone from experts in their respective fields to interested students. Astronomy researcher William Cochran said the event is an opportunity for students to be intimately involved in discussions with specialists in a variety of fields.

Aerospace engineering professor David Goldstein, whose research focuses on the movement of gases, said that investigating the habitability of other planets has become relevant in the last 20 years due to recent advances in space observation.

“Until recently, it was not known for sure that most other stars have planets,” he said. “There are now great advances in searching for life. It used to be considered laughable to listen for radio transmissions from other planets; now, searching for this life is a serious scientific endeavor.”

Goldstein said that life on other planets is certainly possible. He added that liquid water has been found to exist or has existed elsewhere in the universe, and these places are certainly worth exploring for the possibility of life. In fact, according to astronomy assistant professor Brendan Bowler, up to 20 percent of planets within the universe are within the habitable zone, meaning they are a certain distance from their stars that could allow for liquid water to remain on their surface.

“We didn’t know this information too long ago, but Earth-like planets are incredibly common,” he said. “Coinciding with the expansion of finding and characterizing exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system, many planets exist that are similar to Earth in terms of size and orbital distance.”

Ultimately, the goal of the institute is to bring together professors and researchers from a variety of specialties to establish plans for long-term collaborative research.

“There’s a whole community of people across the UT campus; however, everyone is isolated,” said Cochran. “One of the institute’s major purposes is to bring us together, get to know each other and to develop long-term collaborations moving forward.”

Goldstein said that UT-Austin has a diverse community of scientific and engineering ability to investigate extraplanetary life.

“UT has a strong background in biology, planetary sciences, observational astronomy, geosciences and engineering related to building instruments to make these observations,” he said. “We are a large institution capable of making strong contributions in this area.”

Significant in this endeavor, said Cochran, is its interdisciplinary approach. He said that answering fundamental questions about humans, evolution and the origin of life on Earth is really attractive to those of all research areas.

“For this particular pop-up institute, we will have expertise in every discipline you can envision,” Cochran said. “We will explore the cultural implications (of finding life on other planets) and analyze atmospherical, geological and other concepts. All of the speakers are experts in their own area.”

Benny Meltzer, a physics sophomore who attended the town hall meeting, said the appeal of finding extraplanetary life extends to beyond those in academia.

“Not only is finding life on other planets an academic endeavor, this is interesting to everyone,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be interested in this? This captivates everyone from young children to tenured professors.”

Meltzer added that scientists are doing the vital job of empirically investigating what science fiction enthusiasts only dream about. He said that wonder and science work hand-in-hand in the realm of finding extraplanetary life.

“Science fiction sparks people’s interest in this. Just as important are the scientists that work to find this life,” he said.