What is the underlying reason for this?
"NASA seeks next Carl Sagan - and extraterrestrial life"
September 3rd, 2008
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, famous for its manned missions to the moon, announced the creation of the Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowships in Exoplanet Exploration on Wednesday.
The fellowship is named after the late astronomer who popularized science through his books and television appearances.
The fellows will search for life on planets outside our solar system, the so-called exoplanets, more than 300 of which have been discovered since 1994.
Many of the planets discovered orbiting distant stars are gaseous and icy giants believed unsuitable to support life. The challenge is to find Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars.
That search will be aided by NASA's Kepler mission, due for launch next year, that will survey 100,000 stars looking for smaller planets.
In addition, the agency wants to attract young scientists who share Sagan's wonderment about the cosmos who will dedicate themselves to answering the question, "Are we alone?" through improved telescope technology or other means.
"Many feel it's only a matter of time before we find Earth-like planets in Earth-like orbit around solar-like stars and that such planets might be capable of sustaining life," Jon Morse, director of NASA's astrophysics division, told a news conference.
The Sagan fellowships -- $60,000 annual stipends awarded to four or five fellows per year -- are the third named after famed scientists. Others are named after Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble.
When Sagan died in 1996 at age 62, only 11 exoplanets had been discovered.
"We're learning an enormous amount," said Charles Beichman, director of NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute. "We know the rate of star formation. Ten years ago, we didn't know about the fraction of stars with planets. Now we know ... 10 percent have Jupiters and in a few years we'll know about Earths."
"How many of those worlds have life? That's a slightly longer-term question, but is absolutely something that 21st century science can accomplish," he said.