Artist's concept of Earthlink planet

How did we get here? Are we alone? These tantalizing questions are addressed in two free, public lectures called "The Hunt for Earthlike Planets," at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Thurs., November 29, and at Pasadena City College on Fri., November 30.

Dr. Charles Beichman, chief scientist of astronomy and physics at JPL, will discuss NASA's Origins Program, a series of missions on the ground and in space designed to find planets orbiting other stars that might harbor life.

Scientists will hunt for planets with the same conditions that make Earth such a cozy habitat for life -- water, the right temperature, size, density and chemistry. With current technology, we can find very large planets, which probably don't have life. The Origins program is developing powerful new telescopes to find smaller, Earthlike planets in a similar "Goldilocks zone" around other stars -- not too hot, too cold, too big or too small. Sophisticated instruments will look for the telltale chemical signatures of life.

"We are looking initially for simple forms of life" Beichman said, "but with this information we will be able to assess the chances of someday finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe."

Beichman continues to serve as chief scientist for the Origins Program at JPL. Previously, he was director of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, NASA's premier institute for infrared astronomy, jointly operated by JPL and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Beichman also headed JPL's astronomy program in the mid 1980s. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass. He received masters' degrees in astronomy and physics, and a PhD in astronomy from the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. Beichman has been honored with two NASA awards and has published more than 150 scientific and popular articles.

Both lectures begin at 7 p.m. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. The lecture will also be Webcast on Thurs., Nov. 29, at 7 p.m. Pacific time. The lecture at JPL, located at 4800 Oak Grove Dr., Pasadena, off the Oak Grove Drive exit of the 210 (Foothill) Freeway, will be held in the von Karman Auditorium. The Friday lecture will be held in Pasadena City College's Forum at 1570 E. Colorado Blvd.

For more information, call (818) 354-5011. Information on the von Karman lecture and Webcast is available at JPL, a NASA center, is a division of Caltech.