One of the greatest scientific questions is whether or not there exist inhabited worlds other than our own. It has been posed for millennia, and long precedes our current understanding of stars and planets. The commonly held view is that the answer to this question requires large space telescopes, an investment in excess of $15B, and a timescale of decades. That is too long to wait.
We propose the following alternate fast-track approach: Recent evidence has shown that red dwarf stars host rocky, potentially Earth-like planets in large numbers. Red dwarf stars outnumber Sun-like stars 12 to 1, and their low luminosities and small sizes facilitate the study of their orbiting worlds. We will pursue two complementary surveys to identify temperate terrestrial planets orbiting nearby examples of such stars, and with orbits aligned to bring them across the face of their parent stars. We will proceed to measure the masses and infer the densities of these worlds to establish whether they are terrestrial. We will design and conduct laboratory tests for a purpose built spectroscopic instrument to be mounted on the Giant Magellan Telescope. This instrument will be custom built for extremely high resolution studies over limited bandpasses to enable the detection of oxygen and other molecules identified by theoretical work. Finally, we will convene a series of conferences to engage the worldwide community and discuss the implications that we may identify indirect evidence of extraterrestrial life within the next 10 years.
The answer to this Big Question would have an enormous impact: It would inform not just the scientific understanding of the formation of planets and the formation of life upon those planets, but it would directly address the uniqueness of the Earth, and would impact each individual’s understanding of his or her place in the cosmos. Our findings and conferences will ignite these discussions.