Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe — as well as another planet like our own — are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.That was the consensus of a panel on the search for life in the universe held at NASA headquarters Monday in Washington. The discussion focused not only on the philosophical question of whether we’re alone in the universe but also on the technological advances made in an effort to answer that question.

“We believe we’re very, very close in terms of technology and science to actually finding the other Earth and our chance to find signs of life on another world,” said Sara Seager, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Finding Earth’s twin, that’s kind of the holy grail,” said John Grunsfeld, an astronaut who helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 and is now an associate administrator at NASA. Strides in the search for life Scientists have made stellar strides in the past few years alone.

“We already know that our galaxy has at least 100 billion planets, and we didn’t know that five years ago,” said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. He credited the work of the Kepler Space Telescope for these new discoveries. The planet-hunting Kepler probe, launched in 2009, finds planets by looking for dips in the brightness of a star as a planet transits, or crosses, in front of that star.

Kepler also found the first Earth-size planet that orbits in a star’s habitable zone, the area around a star where a planet could exist with liquid water on its surface. The Kepler mission builds upon the stalwart Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990 and was the first of its kind to be placed in space. As Hubble orbits the Earth, it allows scientists to peer back in time, into distant galaxies, and yields stunning images of the cosmos.

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