Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is on the hunt for aliens. She thinks we might be able to find them within the next 20 years. In a new report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she argues that we may soon have the capability to detect life on other planets, a realization she calls "The Awakening."

She admits that she's excited. "Sometimes the anticipation of something rivals the actual discovery," she says in an energetic staccato in her office overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge. "Just the excitement that we can actually do it is phenomenal."

But she doesn't think we'll be chatting with extraterrestrials any time soon, and carefully qualifies her predictions. Those alien life-forms would need to be relatively close to our solar system, she says, and would need to fit particular criteria. "If there's some weird type of underground life, or if life is like a computer that doesn't give off a gas, we're not going to see it," she concedes. What we will detect, she says, with the help of improved telescopes and devices, is the gas that life as we know it emits.

Prof. Seager, 43, thinks there's something out there, "just by the sheer numbers of planets," she says. "Every astronomer knows that every star out there has at least one planet, and we have over 100 billion stars in the galaxy, and upward of hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe."

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