Will ET Be Here Soon? NASA Brings Scientists, Theologians Together To Prepare

09/22/2014 04:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2014

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Looking for extraterrestrial life is akin to a search for a cosmic needle-in-a-haystack, as evidenced by the above incredible Hubble Space Telescope image showing approximately 10,000 galaxies.

In large part, thanks to NASA's Kepler spacecraft, more than 1,400 planets have been identified beyond Earth.

A few days ago, NASA tried closing the gap between life on Earth and the possibilities of life elsewhere. The space agency and the Library of Congress (image below left) brought together scientists, historians, philosophers and theologians from around the world for a two-day symposium, "Preparing For Discovery." Their agenda: To explore how we prepare for the inevitable discovery of extraterrestrial life, be it simple microbial organisms or intelligent beings.

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"We're looking at all scenarios about finding life. If you find microbes, that's one thing. If you find intelligence, it's another. And if they communicate, it's something else, and depending on what they say, it's something else!" said astronomer, symposium organizer and former chief NASA historian, Steven J. Dick.

"The idea is not to wait until we make a discovery, but to try and prepare the public for what the implications might be when such a discovery is made," Dick told The Huffington Post. "I think the reason that NASA is backing this is because of all the recent activity in the discovery of exoplanets and the advances in astrobiology in general.

"People just consider it much more likely now that we're going to find something -- probably microbes first and maybe intelligence later," he added. "The driving force behind this is from a scientific point of view that it seems much more likely now that we are going to find life at some point in the future."

Among the many speakers at last week's astrobiology symposium, one has raised a few international eyebrows in recent years.

"I believe [alien life exists], but I have no evidence. I would be really excited and it would make my understanding of my religion deeper and richer in ways that I can't even predict yet, which is why it would be so exciting," Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother, astronomer and Vatican planetary scientist told HuffPost senior science editor David Freeman.

Consolmagno has publicly stated his belief that "any entity -- no matter how many tentacles it has -- has a soul," and he's suggested that he would be happy to baptize any ETs, as long as they requested it.

"There has to be freedom to do science. Being a good scientist means admitting we never have the whole truth -- there's always more to learn." Consolmagno also doesn't think the public would panic when or if it's revealed that alien life has been found.

"I really think it would be a three-day wonder and then we'd go back to worrying about reality TV or the crazy things going on in Washington -- that's the way human beings are. Because I think most people are like me: we expect it's out there. And our reaction would be, 'Wow, thank heavens. It's about time."

Earth is no longer the center of the universe, nor is it flat -- at least that's the currently accepted thinking among most scientists. And we now know, conclusively, that there are a lot more planets than the ones in our own solar system.

"The number of habitable worlds in our galaxy is certainly in the tens of billions, minimum, and we haven't even talked about the moons. And the number of galaxies we can see, other than our own, is about 100 billion," Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at California's SETI Institute told HuffPost.

Watch this video zooming and panning through the night sky to show 10,000 galaxies photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

At the NASA/Library of Congress symposium, Shostak gave out some startling numbers about how many stars there are in the part of the universe that we can see. "It's a big number: 10,000 billion, billion. And we know that most of those stars have planets -- 70 or 80 percent. If all of those planets are sterile, and you're the only interesting thing happening in the cosmos, then you are a miracle. That would be exceptional in the extreme. So, the middle-of-the-road approach is to say, 'You're not a miracle, you're just another duck in a row of ducks.'"

"The bottom line of this," Shostak said, "is something like one in five of all stars may have an analog to Earth. That's a lot of habitable worlds, and, indeed, the number of Earths in our own galaxy might be on the order of 50 billion."

Those are big numbers to ponder.

The D.C. conference included a great deal of discussion about the upcoming mission of the Hubble's long-anticipated successor: the James Webb Space Telescope. As large as a tennis court, this deep space observatory is scheduled for a 2018 launch and will orbit beyond our moon. The Webb telescope will focus on new planetary discoveries and collect data from the atmospheres of those planets, looking for certain things that might point to what we would consider possible indicators of life.

HuffPost asked Dick, an astrobiologist, for his opinion on the continuing output of UFO reports around the world.

"I try to keep an open mind on this. Ninety-some percent can be explained by natural phenomena, etc. The question is what to do with the other 3 or 4 percent," Dick said. "My opinion is that they should be studied further, on the one hand. By definition, they're something that we don't know what they are. They could be some physical, psychological or social phenomena that we don't know about. But I think it's jumping to a conclusion that they're extraterrestrial. I don't see that evidence.

"I haven't looked at the evidence close enough to say that there's intelligence behind it. But I've seen enough to know that there are unexplained things that we should look at more, and right now, the U.S. government is not doing that."

CORRECTION: We originally referred to Guy Consolmagno as a Jesuit priest. He is, in fact, a Jesuit brother, and the correction has been made in the text above. We apologize for the initial error.

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