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Scientist to Congress: alien life will be found in our lifetime

Seth Shostak, a scientist and head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) has made a bold prediction: humans will make contact with intelligent aliens very soon. The prediction came as Shostak spoke last week at a hearing conducted by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Testifying before Congress, Shostak said that "it's unproven whether there is any life beyond Earth,” later adding that "I think that situation is going to change within everyone's lifetime in this room."

Right now, SETI searches for signs of alien life using radio telescopes in the hope of finding artificial electromagnetic signals, proof positive that some creator is behind their origin. To date, SETI has scanned several thousand star systems but has come up empty every time. However, the more stars you look at, the greater the odds of finding something. Additionally, Shostak said that the search for life could involve two other strategies: searching for the remains of past life (as the rovers are doing on Mars) and examining the atmospheres of exoplanets for gasses that are produced by life (via spectroscopy).

Another reason for optimism: NASA's Kepler spacecraft, which has found, to date, nearly 4,000 potential planets and counting. According to Shostak, of all the star systems found to have planets, 1 in 5 (20%) of them contain an Earth-like planet. Expanded to the whole galaxy, which varying estimates credit with being home to 100-400 billion stars (the key point of contention: the amount of hard-to-find, red dwarf stars), there could be tens of billions of Earth-like planets on which life might arise.

Unfortunately, there's a hurdle: money.

Of late, SETI has had a hard time getting enough money to fund its operations. SETI itself started in the 1970s with government funding. After its founding, SETI ran on government money through the 1980s and into the 1990s before federal funding was pulled in 1993. The reason: the government considered SETI, with its last annual budget of $12 million (out of a total federal budget in the trillions) a waste of taxpayer money. With the federal funding cut, it seemed as though SETI was through. However, thanks to dedicated members of the public who valued the search for other intelligent life in the cosmos, SETI continued its search under private donations, which is how it is still funded today. Unfortunately, with the economy still being at its worst in decades, the public has been forced to cut its expenses, with charitable donations often being among the first things to be placed on the chopping block. For Shostak, this problem of funding is the biggest hurdle SETI faces right now.

However, SETI has overcome more dire funding challenges before and, chances are, it will overcome this one, too. As for whether technologically-advanced aliens will be found within our lifetimes, that possibility is more open to uncertainty.

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