We haven’t found life on Mars yet, but one researcher believes we may be able to detect evidence of it on planets outside the solar system within the next quarter century.
Sasha Kwanz, an astrophysicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich, made these observations at the opening of the university’s new Center for the Origins and Diffusion of Life.
At a press briefing on September 2, Koans detailed the technology projects currently being worked on that might enable researchers to finally answer the question of whether we are alone in Universe.
“In 1995, my colleague [and Noble Prize laureate] “Didier Queloz discovered the first planet outside our solar system. Today, there are more than 5,000 exoplanets and we are discovering them on a daily basis,” Cowans said during the briefing.
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There is so much more outer planets waiting to be discovered because astronomers believe that each of the more than 100 billion stars In the Milky Way He has at least one planet. This makes a huge number of exoplanets, Kwans adds, and many of them are quite similar a land And at an appropriate distance from the host stars to enable conditions for life, such as the presence of liquid water.
“What we don’t know is whether these terrestrial planets have atmospheres and what the components of those atmospheres are,” Cowans said. “We need to examine the atmospheres of these planets. We need an observational approach that will allow us to take pictures of these planets.”
Briefed just a day after the James Webb Space Telescope team launched The first direct web image of an exoplanet It orbits a distant star: the colossal gas giant HIP 65426 b, the size of the planet 12 times Jupiter It orbits about 100 distances between the Sun and Earth from its parent star.
The James Webb Space Telescopewhich was not created to study exoplanets but to search for the oldest stars in the universe, has already made a series of breakthroughs in exoplanet research, including Detection of carbon dioxide And water in the atmosphere of many of them. However, Cowans cautions that Webb, despite the most powerful observatory ever set in space, is not powerful enough to be able to see smaller Earth-like planets that orbit near their stars at distances where liquid water can exist.
“[The HIP 65426] “The system is a very special system,” Cowans said. “It’s a gas giant planet orbiting very far from the star. That’s what Webb can do in terms of taking pictures of planets. We won’t be able to get to the small planets. Webb isn’t powerful enough to do that.”
However, new instruments are already being built with the sole purpose of filling this gap in the capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope. Cowans and his team are leading the development of the Medium Infrared Imaging and Spectrophotometer (METIS) instrument, the first of its kind that will be part of the very large telescope (ELT). It is currently being built by European Southern Observatory In Chile, once the ELT is completed at the end of this decade, it will have a 130-foot (40-meter) wide mirror, making it the world’s largest optical telescope.
“The instrument’s primary goal is to capture the first image of a potentially Earth-like planet, around one of the very closest stars,” said Cowans. “But our long-term vision is to do this not just for a few stars but for dozens of stars, and to investigate the atmospheres of dozens of terrestrial exoplanets.”
Kwans admits that the METIS instrument may not be the one picking up on signs of life on an exoplanet Solar System. A ground-based telescope, such as an ELT, must deal with interference Earth’s atmosphere, skews measurements of the chemistry of the atmosphere enveloping distant worlds. And with Webb completely unprepared for the task, an entirely new task will be needed to answer the big question. This mission is already under discussion under the auspices of the European Space Agency (ESA), Cowans said. Called LIFE (Large Interferometer for Exoplanets), the mission, envisioned in 2017, is currently in the early study phase and has not yet been formally approved or funded.
“[The mission] He is considered a candidate for a major future mission within the European Space Agency’s science programme.”
The space telescope will look at a huge amount of promising exoplanets for traces of particles in the atmosphere of these distant planets that could have been formed by living organisms.
Kwans said the new center at ETH Zurich hopes to lay the groundwork for this future mission, and improve our understanding of the chemistry of life and how it affects the atmosphere and planetary environments.
“We need to gain a deeper understanding of the plausible building blocks of life, the pathways and timelines for chemical reactions and external conditions to help us prioritize target stars and target planets,” said Kwantz. “We need to check to what extent traces of life are real biomarkers, because there may be other processes that can lead to gas formation in these atmospheres.”
And Kwantz added that while ambitious, the time frame he set for himself of 25 years to find life outside the solar system is not “unrealistic.”
“There is no guarantee of success. But we will learn other things along the way,” he said.