Summer Session Class Asks 'Is Anyone Out There?'

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:

June 23, 2010 — Are we alone?

This age-old question is being addressed again this summer in a "Life Beyond Earth" astronomy class taught by University of Virginia graduate student Nicole E. Gugliucci.

"We combine astronomy and biology and chemistry in the search for life beyond Earth," Gugliucci said. "We have found 400 planets so far outside our solar system, orbiting other stars in the galaxy, and other planets are being discovered all the time."

While the laws of probability would seem to indicate there has to be life out there somewhere, scientists need to find the right conditions on other planets to sustain "life as we know it," Gugliucci said.

"We are a carbon-based life form, but maybe there are other types out there," she said. "We start with what we know."

While Earth-bound scientists monitor conditions on other planets with space-based telescopes, closer bodies, such as Mars and the moons of the largest planets in the solar system, are studied with satellites and probes.

Students don't need an astronomy background to take the class and Gugliucci's scientific approach has impressed her students, as has the vastness of the universe.

"It shows how insignificant we are in our own galaxy," said Porter V. Bralley, 26, of Charlottesville, a humanities major. "We're just a speck in the galaxy and we ourselves are just specks on the planet."

Humans have a drive to find life on other planets, according to Anna K. Safigan, 21, an aerospace and astronomy major from Rome, Ga. And she plans to use her two degrees to help.

"I think of techniques to find life out there," she said. "I can figure out who uses what and design it and determine out how to get it to the moons of Jupiter."

Safigan said she wants to work for NASA on an "interplanetary mission to send human probes to Mars and farther."

Gugliucci, who has a background in radio astronomy, became interested in the stars while in middle school in Staten Island, N.Y.

"I had a telescope and the Mars Pathfinder had landed and the movie 'Contact' came out," she said, referring to a film about an encounter with an alien species, based on a novel written by astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan. "I had some great teachers who caught on to my interest and started pushing me toward physics and astronomy."

Gugliucci, 25, has a bachelor's degree in physics from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and a master's degree in astronomy from U.Va. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in astronomy. Affiliated with a South Africa-based radio telescope project, she wants to continue teaching and conducting research.

Gugliucci would have enjoyed taking a class such as this when she was an undergraduate, and that enthusiasm helps her as a teacher.

"It is a lot of fun, but challenging," she said. "This class lets me explore the different facets of what goes into that question of 'Are we alone in the universe?'"

— By Matt Kelly