Life probably exists beyond Earth. So how do we find it?

With next-generation telescopes, tiny space probes, and more, scientists aim to search for life beyond our solar system—and make contact.

Propelled to a fifth the speed of light by a laser beam more powerful than a million suns, tiny spacecraft envisioned by the Breakthrough Starshot initiative are depicted around Proxima Centauri b, four light-years from Earth.
Art Direction: Jason Treat, NGM Staff; Sean McNaughton
Source: Breakthrough Initiatives; Zac Manchester, Stanford University

In her office on the 17th floor of MIT’s Building 54, Sara Seager is about as close to space as you can get in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From her window, she can see across the Charles River to downtown Boston in one direction and past Fenway Park in the other. Inside, her view extends to the Milky Way and beyond.

Seager, 47, is an astrophysicist. Her specialty is exoplanets, namely all the planets in the universe except the ones you already know about revolving around our sun. On a blackboard, she has sketched an equation she thought up to estimate the chances of detecting life on such a planet. Beneath another blackboard filled with more equations is a clutter of memorabilia, including a vial containing some glossy black shards.

“It’s a rock that we melted.”

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