Great Barrier Island: a remote gulf paradise we associate with lush forests, deserted white sand beaches and - this weekend - aliens.

A high-powered panel - including the Pope's astronomer - today descended on the island for a left-field festival focused on the question of other life in the universe.

The day-long series of talks at the island's sports club, also featuring the Weta Digital creative art director behind the movies Avatar and King Kong, was the brainchild of the Awana Rural Women group, run by some of the 939 inhabitants on the island.

The event was a hit: airlines to the island had to put on extra flights and every hire car was booked.


Under sunny skies between presentations, world-renowned planetary scientists and astro-biologists mingled with islanders over a sausage sizzle and tuna sandwiches.

"I'm really surprised that we've got everyone from nine months old to 90 years old here, listening to philosophers, microbiologists and astronomers," the group's president, Gendie Somerville-Ryan, said.

The mind-boggling question at the centre of it all - is there life out there? - wasn't a far fetched one, as far as Vatican Observatory director Brother Guy Consolmagno was concerned.

The Detroit raised, M.I.T-educated astronomer, who could request an audience with his boss, Pope Francis, if he wanted to, said big leaps in technology had made finding other life a very real prospect - and an exciting time to be in his field.

Read more: Professor Steve Pointing: Will we find alien life this century?

"The US is involved in a new telescope project in Chile, you've got the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope being constructed, and surely our rate of being able to make big discoveries must be about to increase quite dramatically," he said.

Great Barrier islanders hear from Auckland University philosopher Professor Tim Mulgan. Photo / Jamie Morton
Great Barrier islanders hear from Auckland University philosopher Professor Tim Mulgan. Photo / Jamie Morton

"I wouldn't be surprised if we find microbial life in our solar system in my life time.
"I think that would be perfectly reasonable - and I would not be surprised, if 20 years from now, with the next generation of telescopes, that we were able to find bio-markers in atmospheres of planets around other stars."

Read more: Q&A: The Pope's astronomer on faith, science and aliens

His friend and colleague, Dr Faith Vilas, a project scientist at the United States Planetary Science Institute who directs a National Science Foundation programme in charge of solar system and exoplanets grants, agreed.

"What I expect to find in my lifetime, hopefully, is that we will identify, as we've already started to do, earth-like planets that will be in zones around their respective stars that could harbour life as we know it.

"But what I hope we find within my lifetime is some level of understanding of sentient life - and that could be anything from creatures who come and talk to us, to something, if not just indications, that there is some other significant life out there."'

Great Barrier islanders Bruce Maxwell, left, and John Garlick, chat with US planetary scientist Dr Faith Vilas. Photo / Jamie Morton
Great Barrier islanders Bruce Maxwell, left, and John Garlick, chat with US planetary scientist Dr Faith Vilas. Photo / Jamie Morton

To Weta Digital's Gino Acevedo, who talked to islanders about how we imagine aliens, there's always been a strong dose of hard science in his cinematic creations.

"Space exploration and that big question, is there life out there, that's always been on my mind," he said.

"But also, when I design something, I think about what would these things look like?

"Would they look cool or creepy?"

The answer, Auckland University of Technology astro-biologist Professor Steve Pointing said, is that no-one knows.

Read more: The Big Read: Are we alone in the universe?

He expects that, rather than little green men, any life we find in the short-term is likely to be microscopic, and in our own back yard, the Solar System.

Still, islander Shona Grey said, it was all "fabulous mind food" on a sleepy, isolated island where typical pastimes were fishing, gardening and chopping firewood.

"We're just so lucky to have had all these people come out here under their own steam, and it's been absolutely fascinating," Grey said.

People will have another chance to hear from Consolmagno, Vilas and Pointing at a free lecture at the Auckland University of Technology's Sir Paul Reeves Building, Mayoral Drive, at 7.30pm on Monday night. People should register here.

Brother Guy Consolmagno, on searching for other life

"I really don't think we are going to have a crewed mission to Mars in my lifetime, and I would hope that we don't; I don't think our technology is ready for it." - on manned expeditions.

"Spending time with the universe is a great way of getting to used to creation and the creator." - on astronomy and religion

"I certainly would think that in 20 years from now, we will have strong evidence of certain planets around other stars that make us think, maybe there's life out there. But do I think we are going to get a message from space? Probably not." - on finding other life