With a shuttle landing all that remains of what by every account has been a fantastically successful mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope (check out this HD crew video of the release), it's time perhaps to point out that in just the last two plus months, not one, but three observatories have been launched to peer deeper and with more resolution into the heavens. Because the mission has a bearing on the question of life, the highly recommended blog Centauri Dreams, which comments on peer-reviewed research on deep space exploration, has the following to say about one of them, Kepler.
The telescope has now begun an effort to locate Earth-sized planets in orbits around stars where water is likely to exist. Paul Gilster:
Expect the first discoveries to be gas giants close to their stars, easiest to spot and confirm using Kepler’s transit methods. Then things get even more interesting. This is a mission that should be able to find terrestrial worlds in the ultimate sense; i.e., planets that not only approximate ours in size but are also roughly at the distance required for liquid water to exist at the surface. We still call that distance the ‘habitable zone’ even though it’s becoming clear, as witness the case around Jupiter, that tidal forces can provide immense energies that could extend a different kind of habitable zone much farther from its star. And then there’s Enceladus…
Knowing what we now know about extremophiles, even that standard - must have liquid water - is being fudged. Life is stubbornly persistent. And having found 347 exoplanets over the past roughly dozen years, isn't it interesting that just as soon as our technology was capable of detecting exoplanets, there they were, waiting on open eyes? As Kepler stares at the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way, the latest technologies may begin answering some pretty old questions indeed.