Astronomer explores idea of alien life

By Shanna O’Mara


Astronomer Derrick Pitts spoke about the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the future of space exploration during his presentation on April 14 as part of the Science Friday series.

Aliens could exist, an expert said.

Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, delved into the possibility of life on other planets during his presentation on April 14. The “New Race for Space” lecture was part of the Science Fridays series, which has brought experts in the fields of chemistry, astrophysics, biology and earth sciences to Rider this semester.

“[The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)] is still doing incredible things,” Pitts said in response to the notion that space exploration ended with the 1969 moon landing.

Astronomers and engineers have been working on exploring the surface of Mars and analyzing the view of Earth from space.

Pitts, a Philadelphia resident, said he can see the International Space Station orbiting the earth four to seven times a day while in the city. The satellite live streams images of the surface of the earth at all hours of the day.

“I love playing the geography game,” Pitts said as he watched the feed and pointed out major cities in the United States and Canada, each one centered in a cluster of lights shining through the darkness of the night.

Another recent achievement is the evaluation of the soil on Mars.

Curiosity, the rover that has been exploring Mars since 2012, scratched the surface of the planet and found frost just two inches deep, according to Pitts.

“It is amazing to think that, at one point in time, Mars had flowing water on it and possibly had the ingredients for life on that planet,” said senior biology major Brian Kuklinski.

While much research is to be done outside of Earth’s atmosphere, the funding to do so has been inadequate, Pitts said.

He said that Congress allocates approximately $19 billion for NASA, just 0.4 percent of the total annual federal budget. Other areas, such as national defense, receive hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

“I’m all for supporting the defense of our country,” Pitts said. “But if everyone in this room gave just two cents out of their paycheck to NASA, incredible things would happen.”

Kuklinski said he believes in the significance of NASA’s work.

“NASA isn’t allowed to solicit for donations, but I think people would be willing to give some money if they could,” he said. “Curiosity is just one example of the great successes NASA has had, and to cut funding would impede future discoveries.”

Private investors, such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, may hold the key to the future of space exploration. He founded SpaceX, a flight company offering private trips around the moon.

“Wealthy people like Elon Musk will make space travel an opportunity for even the normal civilian and not just astronauts,” Kuklinski said. “That’s really cool to think about.”

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