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'Now that we have a map, let's start colonizing outer space' - expert

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For proof that man will soon live in outer space, you need only look at Christopher Columbus. Or so said space whiz and senior SETI astronomer Seth Shostak during a lecture last night at NASA Ames.

Shostak presented, for the first time, his ideas on the parallels between ocean going explorers and today's space pioneers. The explorers, he argued, moved from setting out on their first voyages to creating rather accurate maps of the continents in a span of about fifty years. From that point on, naval powers focused on colonizing the new lands they had discovered.

Astronomers have mimicked the discovery portion of this journey over the past fifty years by producing a map of the Solar System, Shostak said. Next up, we'll set out to colonize space.

"The big picture comes when you step back and realize this is the one generation making the atlas of the solar system," Shostak said. "That is what's happening."

Columbus "discovered" a "new land" in 1492 and kicked off a flurry exploration made possible by innate human wanderlust and improved technology. Columbus, however, didn't really know where he had traveled and didn't add a tremendous amount of mapping knowledge. But over the next 50 years, the likes of Magellan, Vespucci and Verrazano would deliver a pretty solid picture of most of the major land masses.

"The basic globe was there," Shostak said. "One generation did that. All we have done since then is refine that globe."

With a decent map in hand, the European powers set out to fund the colonization of the new world.

A similar practice of mapping the solar system started in 1965 when Mariner 4 sent back much improved pictures of Mars, Shostak said.

Since that time, astronomers – with the help of high-powered telescopes and various exploration vehicles and probes – have delivered stunning pictures of most of the planets and their moons. The quality of these images coupled with our knowledge has made it possible to target not one or two but several places where we might find life or where it might make sense for humans to set up shop.

"Before 1965, if you asked, 'Do you think there is life elsewhere in the solar system?' most scientists would have said, 'Yes' and said Mars and Mars only as the likely candidate," Shostak said. "Since then, we have learned Mars is still a candidate and maybe the best, but it is not the only candidate by any means"

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