Within the past two decades, scientists have found more than 300 planets around stars beyond the sun -- most of them giant gas or ice planets, some of them possibly rocky giants, or "super-Earths."
Now the field is abloom with new techniques -- heralded by the recent headline-grabbing revelation of the first actual pictures of extra-solar planets -- which hold out the tantalizing promise of answers to ancient questions: Are there other planets like Earth that might have fostered life? Where does Earth's family fit in the unexpectedly varied cosmic continuum of planetary systems?
Experts including Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, D.C., will explore the origin and evolution of planets during the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting, which is scheduled to take place 12-16 February 2009 in Chicago, Illinois.
Boss, whose remarks are also available on a podcast posted to EurekAlert!, will discuss the probability that planets with life will soon be shown to be abundant. He will set the stage for NASA's Kepler mission, scheduled for launch in early March to hunt for these habitable planets.
Other speakers on the AAAS Annual Meeting panel will describe new experimental results that bear on the extreme processes and conditions associated with those dramatically un-Earthlike giant worlds -- where, for example, pressures in their deep interiors reach millions to billions of times the pressure at Earth's surface. The panel will also preview advanced technologies and approaches being mobilized to study these extraordinary environments, which challenge conventional wisdom about the properties of matter and how planets form.
"There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those -- perhaps half of them would have Earth-like planets," Boss says in his AAAS podcast interview. "So, I think there's a very good chance that we'll find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20, or 30 light years of the sun." When asked whether there could be life on such planets, Boss adds: "If you have a habitable world and you let it evolve for a few billion years, it's inevitable that some sort of life will form there."
The AAAS symposium on the "Origin and Evolution of Planets" will take place Saturday, 14 February 2009, 1:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. CST in the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Regency Ballroom C. A related press briefing is set for 10:00 a.m. CST on that same date.
Other speakers in the session will be Raymond Jeanloz of the University of California, Berkeley, who will discuss "Exploring Matter to Gbar Pressures;" and Gilbert Collins of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif., an expert on "Recreating Deep Interior States of Giant Plants in the Laboratory;" and Russell Hemley of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, D.C., whose talk is entitled "Exotic Behavior of Materials at Multimegabar Pressures."
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The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.