In the past 15 years or so, astronomers have discovered more than 4,200 potential exoplanets—planets orbiting distant stars—and confirmed the existence of more than 1,050 of them. In a galaxy with 300 billion stars, there are surely untold billions of other planets out there. Is anyone home on any of them?
Few astronomers are approaching that question as creatively as Lisa Kaltenegger, 36, an exoplanet investigator who is a lecturer at Harvard University and leader of a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, in Heidelberg, Germany. The focus of her work is not discovering exoplanets, most of which have been detected by the Kepler space telescope. Rather, she and her team are modeling them—hoovering up massive amounts of data from Kepler, the Hubble Space Telescope and various ground telescopes and processing it through computer models to determine which worlds could harbor life. These days, so-called Big Data is inescapable, from algorithms that predict what you'll buy to government surveillance. Now it seems Big Data may also be the key to finding extraterrestrial life.
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