How You Can Help Scientists Find Alien Life After Hurricane Maria

Trappist 1
Artist’s impression shows the view from the surface of one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Several of the planets orbiting nearby may harbor “substantial amounts” of water, astronomers say. ESO/N. Bartmann/

The crown jewel of Abel Mendez's laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo was the art on the walls: scientists' portraits of distant worlds where they believe other types of life forms may be quietly mirroring our own daily habits.

The art represents the heart of his lab's work—finding the best candidate planets for alien life. But that work has been stalled since Hurricane Maria struck just under two months ago.

"We keep a collection of planet discoveries by observatories around the world, and we combine the theory from others and ourselves to decide which ones are better candidates for life," Mendez said. The result is the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, which acts as a central storage venue for data about these planets.

Mendez hasn't worked on the catalog since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in late September. Now, he's raising money to help get the lab back to normal, accepting donations through the lab's website. So far, he's raised about $2,000 of the about $14,000 he anticipates needing to cover expenses not addressed by the university or by insurance.

Right now, he's entirely without a lab for at least a couple weeks, as the university cleans up damage from Hurricane Maria. As the storm approached, Mendez and his colleagues thought they would be fine, since the lab is in an interior section of the building. But debris carried by the strong winds sent water every direction and blocked up gutters. The lab ended up flooding with about three inches of rain, but water also seeped through the drywall and fostered mold. Desks, papers, computers, floor tiles—it basically all has to go.

Mendez estimates he'll lose at least another month of research time to putting the lab back together. And while he's busy fundraising and liasing with university staff, his undergraduate student assistants are tackling their own challenges, like figuring out how to stay on top of their work with no internet access at home.

And Mendez's lab is just one of dozens impacted by the disaster. CienciaPR, a pre-existing group for scientists based in Puerto Rico, has been connecting hurricane-affected labs with mainland counterparts interested in helping. They haven't yet publicly tallied the number of scientists involved.

Mendez is worried for friends and colleagues rebuilding as well, but can't forget that far away from the downed power lines and water damage, 12 different alien worlds are circling stars far away from our sun, perhaps hiding the first non-terrestrial life we'll ever find.