The Search For Alien Life – With Guest Dr. Eric Mamajek (Part 3)

February 18, 2013

John P. Millis, Ph.D. and Jedidiah Becker for – Your Universe Online

Ever since astronomers began to grasp just how massive the cosmos really is, the question of whether there might be life beyond Earth has fascinated scientists and captured the popular imagination. Yet, while the staggering vastness of our universe may increase the chances that there could be life out there somewhere, it also makes the search for alien life akin to looking for a needle in a cosmic haystack.

With billions upon billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars and billions more planets, where do researchers even begin to look for potentially life-hosting worlds? How large, or small, would such a planet have to be? How close to its star would it need to be? What kind of atmosphere would it need to have, and what other chemical components would it need in order to be hospitable to life? And if we found a candidate planet that had these features, what would the next step be? How could we ‘listen’ for signs of life or attempt to contact it … and would we even want to?

Only recently has technology reached a level of sophistication that is finally allowing scientists to probe our galactic neighborhood in search of a new Earth. In just the first two weeks of 2013, NASA’s Kepler Mission has already identified hundreds of new exoplanets, and a recent report from Caltech astronomers has stated that there are at least 100 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone. With the rapid advancement of scientific instrumentation, is it just a matter of time before we discover life on one of these distant planets?

Joining us again this week is Dr. Eric Mamajek, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of Rochester. In this podcast, Professor Mamajek will discuss the features that a planet would need to have in order to support life as we know it, as well as the latest technology used by researchers to test for these characteristics. He’ll also share his thoughts on what we might expect in the search for alien life in the coming years and what it could mean for human civilization if we ever do find it.

Listen to parts one and two of the interview, “How Planets Form” and “Planet Hunting.”


Eric Mamajek is Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of Rochester. He received his B.S. in Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Physics, from Pennsylvania State University in 1998 before completing a M.Sc. in Physics from The University of New South Wales/ADFA in 2000, and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from The University of Arizona in 2004. After his Ph.D. he was a Clay Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and he joined the faculty at University of Rochester in 2008.

His primary research interests are understanding the formation and evolution of stars, planetary systems, substellar objects, and circumstellar disks in our Galactic neighborhood. He has coauthored over 80 refereed astrophysics journal papers, and his research has been supported by awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In 2012, his research group announced the discovery of the first ring system outside the solar system which transits a young Sun-like star, and in 2010 he and his collaborators discovered a faint stellar companion to the famous star Alcor in the Big Dipper.