‘It seems statistically likely that life exists elsewhere in the universe’: catching up with Dr. Nikole Lewis

LSC News

In the past two decades, we’ve seen rapid growth in our ability to detect and explore planets around other stars. New discoveries are happening all the time as scientists seek out these strange, distant worlds in pursuit of answering “How did we get here?” and “Are we alone?”

On June 28 at 8:00 pm, Dr. Nikole Lewis – assistant professor at the Cornell Department of Astronomy and deputy director of the Carl Sagan Institute – will explore these current and future efforts during a presentation in LSC’s Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium.

Dr. Lewis’ presentation is part of LSC’s monthly Friday Nights @ LSC event series, when the building stays open late for a night of astronomy adventures you won’t get during the daytime. All ages are welcome, and the presentation is free with general admission.

In the days leading up to the event, we caught up with Dr. Lewis about what it’s like to search for other planets, what the future holds, and whether she thinks there is life beyond Earth.

Dr. Nikole Lewis

What do you think the next few years will bring us when it comes to searching for other planets? What big discoveries/accomplishments might we make?

The next few years will bring us thousands of planet discoveries from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will provide a census of planets orbiting nearby stars across the entire sky. Many of these planets will be studied further with Hubble and eventually the James Webb Space Telescope. With these more detailed studies, we’ll be able to determine what’s in the air around these planets, especially those in between the size of Earth and Neptune, which don’t exist in our solar system.

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to searching for other planets?

Because planets orbit stars, they always represent tiny signals that are competing to be seen against the booming signal from their host stars. This requires us to use a variety of specialized observing and data analysis techniques to measure signals well below the 1% level.

In your opinion, do you think there is life on other planets? Why or why not?

The Kepler mission showed us that planets are abundant in our galaxy. Given this abundance, it seems statistically likely that life exists elsewhere in the universe. The frequency of both habitable planets (those that could support life) and inhabited planets (those that show distinct signatures of life) is something that we will be testing in the coming decades through a variety of ground and space-based observing facilities.

What has been the most exciting moment of your career and why?

Probably being part of the TRAPPIST-1 system discovery announcement. That system of seven earth-sized planets fundamentally changed the way we thought about exoplanetary systems and provided our first opportunity to study the atmospheres of temperate terrestrial worlds with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Click here to get tickets to Friday Nights @ LSC on June 28.

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