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Nasa duo to students: not much chance of life beyond earth

Aspiring astronomers from city schools had a reality check on Sunday when two Nasa scientists — one originally from Calcutta — told them that finding life or building a colony outside earth in the near future was improbable.

The students had gathered in numbers at City Centre, Salt Lake, to listen to Alok Chatterjee and Paul Rosen of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, during a programme organised by the IIT Kharagpur Alumni Association, Calcutta chapter, in association with The Telegraph.

The topic was Monitoring the Dynamic Earth from Space — A Nasa-Isro Radar Mission, which aims to launch Nasa-Isro Synthetic Aperture Radar (NI-SAR) in 2019-2020. The lectures were followed by a question-answer session.

There was a barrage of queries from the young enthusiasts. The first question was how much chance there is of finding life in outer space, and if there is life, can humans establish contact with aliens?

If the question was blunt, so was the answer from Rosen. “Not much of a chance,” said the project scientist for NI-SAR concept, drawing disappointed grunts from the students.

He said scientists had so far not been able to gather any proof of life on Mars and asked the students not to worry about earth-like planets in other solar systems because “we will never get there”.

“Why would you want to live in a bubble in Mars, especially when you have a perfect planet like earth? You should rather take good care of your planet and that is where the mission we spoke to you just now can help,” Rosen went on.

Chatterjee, who had studied at Rungta Academy in Ballygunge Phari and IIT Kharagpur, held out a bit of hope for the students when he said they must never stop dreaming about possibilities of life outside earth.

“We have found evidence that there was once water on the moon. Investigation is on. Curiosity (Nasa’s robotic rover) is sending back data from Mars. But search for life outside earth is a tediously slow process,” Chatterjee told the gathering.

The IIT alumni were overwhelmed with the interest shown by the city schools. “We had invited 75 schools, of which 51 sent students despite this being an exam season. The zeal with which the children enquired about space was heartening,” said Sujata Roy, president, IIT Kharagpur Alumni Association, Calcutta chapter.

The scientists earlier explained the nitty-gritty of the NI-SAR mission, being jointly organised and funded by Nasa and Isro.

Using a combination of Nasa’s L-band and Isro’s S-Band radar reflectors, NI-SAR would orbit the earth for three years, measuring the dynamics of ice sheets and glaciers, changes in ecosystem and biomass and solid earth deformation.

With data from the satellite, it would be easier to find out about climate change and make disaster response more scientific. It would also provide data about a vast array of subjects, like receding aquifer and the rise in the sea level.

One of the questions from the audience was exactly how advanced would NI-SAR be. “There is nothing out there in space so far that has an L-Band and an S-Band radar. So it will be pretty modern you can say,” said Rosen.