TOLEDO, Spain (Mar 13, 1996 1:21 p.m. EST) - Scientists believe they could discover life outside the solar system within the next 25 years.

"Yes, definitely, there's life out there," Mike Kaplan, director of U.S. space agency NASA's Origins program, told Reuters during a meeting of astronomers in Toledo.

"I don't think we're alone."

"We'll take some time to contact them, but one day we will meet them and we will be surprised because they will be very different from us," Kaplan said Tuesday.

"Within a maximum of 25 years, it will be possible to discover life outside Earth," Kaplan said.

"Planet hunters" from across the world have gathered in this historic Spanish city to discuss infrared interferometry, a technology which will help the search for life outside the solar system.

"This is the first time that projects are being conceived that will allow us to solve in around 20 years questions that humankind has been asking for centuries," Kaplan said.

Last October Swiss astronomers detected a planet outside the solar system for the first time. Shortly afterwards, American scientists discovered two other planets.

Astronomers meeting in Toledo, excited by the discoveries, say the question is no longer whether life can be discovered on other planets but simply when it can be done.

"For the first time, it's not a dream, it's just a question of time," said Kaplan, whose Origins program aims to study the origins of the universe, the formation of planets and the existence of life outside the solar system.

"Life on other planets, if not identical, will be very similar to that on Earth," leading Spanish biologist Juan Oro told a news conference.

Traditional telescopes, of which NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is the most powerful, cannot contribute to the search because the light from the stars drowns out that of the planets which orbit near them.

The infrared interferometer, 40 times more powerful than Hubble, would be capable of determining through infrared rays whether newly discovered planets have the necessary conditions, like water and oxygen, to shelter life.

Both NASA and the European Space Agency have separately started to develop infrared technology. Both say international cooperation is needed for such a project.

ESA in February unveiled the first photographs taken by its Infrared Space Observatory, which can see through dense dust clouds.

NASA estimates the budget for building its interferometer at $200 million a year for a period of 10 years. Europeans and Americans agree the project inaugurates a new era for humankind.

"Discovering life out there would change everything: philosophy, religion...and would make us feel humbler because we would find out that we're not alone and we're not that special," Kaplan said.

"It's the beginning of a new era of explorations, a new age of Galileo, and what's exciting about it is that it's within reach."

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