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As we orbit the Sun on our lonely planet, scientists continue to tackle the big question of whether or not other life forms exist beyond Earth. While thoughts of distant galaxies and a constantly expanding universe are daunting, there are some Earthlings dedicated to the search for planets beyond our solar system.

Astrophysicists are astronomers that focus on the behaviour, physical properties, and dynamic processes of celestial bodies. Among other tasks, they search for terrestrial-class planets, (those that harbour conditions suitable for life), and extrasolar planetary systems. According to NASA, scientists have identified over 1,000 planets and planet candidates that are orbiting stars. This number is especially impressive considering it wasn't until 1992 that planets were confirmed to exist beyond our own solar system.

The Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) is a nationally supported research centre hosted by the University of Toronto. An institute within the university's faculty of arts and sciences, and also a non-profit corporation, the organization promotes research and excellence in the international theoretical astrophysics community. Focusing on areas like cosmology and the early universe, stellar physics, and planetary systems, CITA accepts new and recent PhD graduates applications for positions as postdoctoral fellows and senior research associates and provides several fellowship opportunities.

There are also opportunities for undergraduate students to get in on the action. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada offers undergraduate student research awards that provide stipends encouraging cosmic research. Recipients work for 16 consecutive weeks in the summer and can study areas that range from celestial mechanics to galactic structures.

And these areas of study are not only relevant on paper. With the launch of NASA's Kepler Mission, named for famed astronomer Johannes Kepler, the exploration into the structure and diversity of planetary systems beyond our own has become a reality. The mission's primary goal is to locate habitable planets that could host life. This research and exploration will also give scientists a better understanding into how many of the billions of stars in the Milky Way actually have planetary systems.

While all of this may seem like science fiction, the future is burgeoning with entrepreneurial potential into spaceflight and crafts designed for extrasolar study. Marshall Barnes, a research and development engineer and conceptual theorist, is looking to the stars to create new technologies intended for space exploration and travel.

A critical issue, especially for long missions in space is the psychological element, he explains. The technology that I'm developing is similar in concept to the Star Trek Holodek, except that it is a helmet you wear through which you experience preprogrammed, alternate realities pre-designed for each individual's needs. He adds that he is working to develop technology for warp drive which has applications to divert incoming asteroid threats as well as rapid space travel.

Barnes has also designed the STDTS warp drive prototype technology that will study the results of reaching the speed of light and beyond. This would be accomplished first with a probe, he says. The use of probes will enable the accumulation of incredible amounts of scientific data that will not only be useful from an exploratory view point, but also enable us to learn how to design and build spacecraft for manned missions.

While we can only speculate on what the future of space exploration will bring, the discovery of alien life could be closer than we think. As Barnes puts it: We are finally reaching the point where technologies being developed now will enable the kinds of things we were told to expect in the 21st century.

The implications of such a discovery? We may need to turn to George Lucas for predictions.

All month we've been highlighting exciting space jobs and topics. Check out these other articles on careers in outerspace:

The psychology of spaceflight
The future of spaceflight
Jeremy Hanson on being an astronaut
Blast off your career in 3, 2, 1...

Image: NASA