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While it may seem natural to zero in on "alien Earths," such a narrow focus would exclude many potentially life-supporting exoplanets, whose diversity continues to astound astronomers, says Sara Seager of MIT.
And researchers can't afford to be so picky, she adds, since they'll be able to get in-depth looks at just a handful of alien worlds for the foreseeable future. [9 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]
The number of planets that we're going to be able to see in our lifetime — and look at their atmospheres for signs of life— is so small that we're forced to be open-minded," Seager told SPACE.com.
Seager discusses exoplanet habitability in a review article published online today (May 2) in the journal Science.
Scientists discovered the first alien planet around a sunlike star in 1995. Since then, the tally has grown to more than 700 (or more than 800, depending on whose list is consulted), with thousands more candidates waiting to be confirmed by follow-up observations.
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