Are we alone in the universe? Humans have been fixated on this question for thousands of years, and astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger thinks we may be on the cusp of finally answering it.“For the first time in human history, we have the technical tools to actually figure it out,” said Kaltenengger, director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, in a VICE interview posted on Tuesday. “Next year, we will launch the James Webb Space Telescope that, for the first time, will be able to collect enough light from these tiny tiny planets, like Earth,” she continued. “So we could look for signs of life in the atmosphere.”
Telescopes designed to spot exoplanets have revealed an enormous variety of worlds across the Milky Way. Many of these worlds occupy the so-called habitable zone in their star systems, where liquid water—the key ingredient for life as we know it on Earth—could theoretically exist. Kaltenegger is one of the world’s leading experts on these potentially habitable exoplanets, and she is optimistic we could discover tantalizing proof for life on some of them over the next few decades.“I think the numbers are forever in our favor,” Kaltenegger said. “We have 200 billion stars,” she added, and since “one out of five stars has a planet that could be like the Earth, then I like our odds.”In the new interview, Kaltenegger also discusses the methods that scientists use to detect and characterize exoplanets, the legacy of beloved Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan, and her predictions for how first contact with alien life might actually happen (fortunately, she does not think it’s likely that E.T. will come to Earth to eat us).