SETI Scientist Says Announcement of Alien Life Could Be Imminent

Webby Awards

One of the world's foremost experts in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) believes that with the help of the James Webb Space Telescope, humans are closer to discovering life outside our planet than ever before.

Lisa Kaltenegger, who directs the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell, told The Telegraph this week that because the Webb Telescope is designed to detect biosignatures — the scientific word for "signs of life," including organism-produced methane gas — we may well find ETs very soon.

Kaltnegger, whose new book "Alien Earths: Planet Hunting in the Cosmos" was published this month, waxed enthusiastic when discussing the JWST, bragging that with its technological leaps, humanity is now in "this era of golden exploration, with thousands of other worlds on our doorstep, that we now can actually explore."

The scientist is particularly interested in the planets surrounding Trappist-1, a red dwarf star located just 40 light-years away that's suspected to contain water and, potentially, life. Discovered in 2017, the Trappist-1 system appears to have several planets in the so-called "habitable zone" where they could host liquid water — and by Kaltnegger's reckoning, it's likely where we'll find life.

"We have a chance to find the gases on these worlds," she told the British website. "And to figure out if there’s biosignatures on them within the next, let’s say, five to 10 years."

"If life is everywhere, it can be in that system," Kaltnegger continued. "It may be that we need to observe 100 systems before we find life, or 1,000. But it could also be that we just need to observe one system."

Should we be so lucky, she predicted, that discovery "could be just a couple of years from now."

Letting Down Easy

When asked about some of the more bombastic believers in ETs, the Austrian-born astronomer was diplomatic in her condemnation.

"I think people are very, very smart," she said, "and actually do start to doubt these things when it’s just a little too convenient."

All the same, Kaltnegger considers congressional whistleblower David Grusch, whose outlandish claims about the government having retrofitted "non-human vehicles" and recovering alien carcasses greatly irritated the SETI community, to be a "snake oil" salesman — though she admits that it would be "so much easier" if his claims were true.

"When I see that, honestly what I think is, 'Oh God, I wish this were true,'" she told The Telegraph. "That would be so much easier if we had aliens coming here. Because the search for chemical make-up, and gas as a biosignature, it’s hard, even with the biggest telescopes we have."

Still, it's clear the astronomer believes strongly in her chosen approach — and if her educated guesses on timelines are right, she might have a lot to show for it soon.

More on SETI: SETI Institute Claims They've Successfully Communicated With a Whale