MIT Professor: Exoplanet Research Is a Burgeoning Field

Finding life on another planet may not be as far-fetched as it once seemed.

In a lecture hosted Wednesday by the Origins of Life Initiative, an interdisciplinary center focused on the development of life on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets, MIT professor Sara Seager listed conditions necessary for an extraterrestrial habitable planet and noted the speed at which other such planets are being discovered.

“It’s a field that has been exploding lately,” said Emma J.K. Kowal ’15, who attended the lecture. “If you’re interested in science in general, it takes aspects from chemistry, geology, astrophysics...and also aliens. Who doesn’t like aliens?”

In her talk, Seager noted the sheer diversity of exoplanets, or planets that exist outside the Solar System. In particular, she discussed the habitable zone, the region around a star in which planets could conceivably maintain liquid water supplies.

“You can have an atmosphere that’s very different from earth but still has surface liquid water,” she said.

The main goal of current exoplanet research, Seager said, is to lay the groundwork for future scientists. “Our goal is to figure out what is out there so that hundreds or thousands of years from now, when we do figure out how to get there, they will look back on us, not individually but collectively, as the people who started the process,” she said.

The study of exoplanets is relatively new—groundbreaking discoveries are made on a regular basis. On Tuesday, a team from Switzerland identified Alpha Centauri Bb, an Earth-sized planet located just outside our solar system.

Zachory K. Berta, a research assistant in astronomy, is currently working on a project involving the study of exoplanet atmospheres. “In my experience, it’s always been very accessible [to understand the significance of the discovery of an exoplanet], in the sense that people get planets,” he said. “We’re not talking about black holes, general relativity, or the expansion of the universe—we’re talking about things like the Earth, and the idea that you could have another planet like the Earth has already been explored in science fiction.”

And research in this area is just getting started. “We are at this really remarkable place in human history where we just now have the technology and the techniques to start to objectively address questions about the universe,” Berta said.

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