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NASA: Humans could find alien life within 20 years

NASA scientists and top space experts outline plans to advance the search for life on other worlds.

Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. NASA/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It's always nice to have something out of the ordinary to look forward to. Now, you can look forward to a conversation with an alien within 20 years.

No, I'm not privy to a private email or two from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Instead, I've got official sources saying we could have proof of alien life within our lifetimes.

Yesterday, NASA held a discussion in Washington about the search for life in the universe. On this august occasion, a panel of experts offered their optimism.

Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and now administrator of NASA, admitted that he'd always looked for aliens when he was up there but had never actually seen any. However, he said it was "probably improbable" that we humans are alone. He said both his scientific study and his faith led him to this conclusion.

Bolden also said finding aliens was driving deep-space exploration. NASA's panel of scientists at the discussion were even bolder.

One of the space agency's astronomers, Kevin Hand, said: "I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe."

The director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the gorgeously named Matt Mountain, talked about changing the world forever.

"Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life," he said. "Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over."

All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Well, right now, from here. Collectively and individually, we exhibit all the signs of chilly lostness. Might it be that those out there can make us feel better about ourselves down here?

As alien-hunting technology becomes more sophisticated -- NASA last year announced the The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), for example, which will come into use in 2017 -- there is the hope that among the vast plethora of planets out there, we'll find a second Earth. Or at least find a planet where there are beings with whom we can communicate.

More than one human believes that aliens have already been here for quite a while.

Canada's former defense minister, Paul Hellyer, insists that aliens would have already given us more tech if only we'd stop our pesky, squabbling wars. Then there's former President Bill Clinton. You always get the sense that he knows more than he's letting on. He cryptically told Jimmy Kimmel recently that if aliens had already sampled our way of life, he wouldn't be at all surprised.

It's lovely, too, to see so many scientists feel giddy about the potential discovery of alien beings.

There is, though, Stephen Hawking, who fears that aliens might absolutely loathe us. Or imagine the greater tragedy. What if we, despite all our foibles and failings, are the most intelligent beings in the galaxy?