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SETI Gets Some Congressional Support--Finally!

In a hearing last week of the House space science subcommittee, lawmakers applauded efforts to find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe and to search for other Earthlike worlds, just seven years after some lawmakers dismissed their efforts as a search for ?little green men.?

?The discovery of life in the universe would be one of the most astounding discoveries in human history,? said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). ?Funding should match public interest and I don't believe it does.? Smith said that since funds for the search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI) were dropped from the federal budget in 1994, ?the SETI credibility has been enhanced.?

Four scientists appearing as witnesses said that in the last five years the concept that life exists beyond the Earth has been boosted by dramatic discoveries both on Earth and in space. Among the advances cited was the fact that at least 50 planets have been found in orbits of distant, sun-like stars in the last five years and researchers now believe that solar systems may be common through out the universe. Finding planets is considered an essential step toward finding life.

?All of these planets are Jupiter-size or larger,? said Ed Weiler, NASA?s associate administrator for space science. ?No Earth-like planets have been found, but we don?t yet have the technology? to detect planets the size of Earth in orbit of distant stars. Weiler said that a space observatory now being built will be able to search for the chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of planets up to 50 light years away.

Additional facts include the discovery of water on moons of Jupiter and in the orbit of at least one distant star. Liquid water is considered an essential chemical for the development of life. There is also strong proof that water was once common on Mars and there are plans to search beneath the Martian surface for evidence of water, the most likely place for life on the Red Planet.

Also, new studies of galaxies suggest that the formation of planets and solar systems may be common. The Hubble space telescope has captured many images of stars surrounded by the dust and gas clouds thought to be precursors for planets.

In addition to this, researchers have found bacteria that live in the coldest of salt water, in the deep pressure and heat of volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean, and in the most acid of environments. Since life is possible in such hostile environments on Earth, then it may also have developed in extreme conditions that may exist on other planets.

In 1994, some members of Congress ridiculed the SETI Institute and its efforts to detect radio signals from alien civilizations. The SETI concept fell so far out of favor that the National Science Foundation put a notice on its website that proposals for SETI research were not welcome.

Christopher F. Chyba, a leader of the SETI Institute in California, said that since losing its congressional funding, the program has been supported by private donations. It has about 120 employees and regularly searches for signals on two million radio channels using a major radio telescope in Puerto Rico. SETI, in partnership with the University of California in Berkeley, is now building a $30 million radio telescope array that will be able to listen to signals from the nearest one million stars in many channels.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said it was impressive that SETI has continued to thrive even though federal funds were cut off, and she said the federal government should not be against this research. ?We need to let the federal agencies know that bias against SETI research is not favored,? she said. ?No member of this committee wants bias against any good science.?

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