Vail Symposium presentation explores search for extraterrestrial life | VailDaily.com

Vail Symposium presentation explores search for extraterrestrial life

John O’Neill
Special to the Daily

VAIL — Four hundred years ago, Galileo made a telescope and pointed it at the night sky, spurring an explosion of research to answer mankind's greatest questions about space. However, one of the biggest questions still remains: Are we really alone in the universe?

On Monday, the Vail Symposium welcomes planetary science experts Jonathan Fortney and Nick Schneider to explain recent discoveries in the field of astrobiology, the first steps toward locating life on other planets. The program will begin at 5:30 p.m. at The Grand View in Lionshead Village.

"I think people have always looked into the sky at night and wondered about the stars and the planets of those other stars," Fortney said. "What are they like? Are they like Earth? Do they have inhabitants on them? These are all important questions. We are really just now starting to get a better appreciation for the diversity of planets."

'Solar neighborhood'

Fortney is a physical and biological sciences professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. His research includes characterizing planets to better understand their composition and how planets evolve with time. He is involved in the Kepler Mission to find small transiting exoplanets close to stars and the Gemini Planet Imager to obtain images and spectra of gas giant exoplanets farther from stars.

Most of Fortney's research involves characterizing planets in the solar neighborhood — or within 100 light years of earth. Fortney and his team specialize in studying the light emitted from a star when a planet in that star's orbit eclipses that light.

Recommended Stories For You

"As a planet passes right in front of its parent star, light is reflected by the planet," Fortney said. "From there, we can see the light that comes through, and from that light, we can learn about the atmosphere of those planets. The type of light emitted allows us to look at things like temperature, evidence of molecules like water, methane, ammonia or carbon dioxide."

For instance, if you were on another planet looking at the light that is given off by reflections of Earth, then you would be able to see that we have high amounts of oxygen and methane in our atmosphere, each of which indicate a high level of biology, or life as we know it.

The work is tedious. The Kepler Mission studied a small patch of sky, or about 150,000 planets, for four years continuously. Depending on the orbit of a planet, he might see the light from the star dim — an eclipse — every 100 days or 10 days or never at all. When dimming did occur, they could make those judgments on the planets. The Kepler Mission was able to find and characterize about 5,000 planets.

Fortney does admit, thought, at times they were looking for, and still are looking for, things we might not know about already.

"Planets are so complicated and, in the end, how life might impact a planet will probably be something we haven't thought of," Fortney said. "Right now, though, we can look for things like methane. When we see an abundance of methane, we think that is biology. That is the smoking gun for life."

Breakthroughs, frustrations

Schneider, who will speak alongside Fortney, is an associate professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado and a researcher in the Laboratory For Atmospheric And Space Physics. His research interests include planetary atmospheres and planetary astronomy.

"In space, anything is possible," Schneider said. "Surely this is why science fiction is so rich and so varied. As amazed as we all are by the canyons of Mars, the oceans of Europa, by black holes, worm holes, dark energy and the like, deep down we want to know if it's just us here. … Are we alone? Either answer is pretty mind-blowing."

Schneider calls himself, by profession and passion, an "observer." On the science side, he takes measurements of light given off by a planet's atmosphere to figure out what's going on — composition, weather and habitability. He compares this observation to watching the flows and eddies of a creek and figuring out where the trout might be holding. He said it's amazing what you can figure out just by watching and trying.

However, as an observer, he has watched how science and how the attitude of science has evolved in America, drawing some level of frustration.

"I have to say, it's America's fickle relationship with science," Schneider said when asked about the most frustrating part of his research. "When it's space or dinosaurs or aliens, America says, 'Hey, you're the expert! Tell us what it's all about!' When it comes closer to home — climate change especially — somehow we're not experts? Science is a package deal: We listen to what the world and what the universe are trying to tell us, and we don't choose the answer we like better. The spirit of exploration, of adventure is no less amazing."

The progress of technology has been the biggest aid to the science of discovery. Today's smartphones are more powerful than the computers Fortney and Schneider used in graduate school and are more advanced than the computers that brought Apollo to the moon and back.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for 2018, will be the next step forward for researchers such as Schneider and Fortney. This telescope will allow scientists to view smaller, more Earth-like planets in contrast to the larger, gas planets that they are finding now. Beyond that, there are already teams formulating plans and working with technological companies to go even farther and be more accurate in their findings.

"Most scientists believe — without proof — that there's life out there," Schneider said. "Why? The sheer number of opportunities for life out there. In Vail, Jonathan (Fortney) and I will lay out the case and see what the audience makes of it."

If you go …

What: “Astrobiology: The First Steps in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life,” breakthroughs in planetary science and the search for life elsewhere in the universe, with Jonathan Fortney and Nick Schneider.

When: Monday, Feb. 15; 5:30 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. program

Where: The Grand View, Lionshead Village.

Cost: $25 preregistration online before 2 p.m. on the event day, $35 at the door, or $10 for students and teachers.

More information: Register at http://www.vailwymposium.org or by calling 970-476-0954.