We haven’t found life on Mars yet, but a researcher thinks we could detect evidence of it on planets outside the solar system within a quarter of a century.
Sasha Quanz, an astrophysicist at ETH Zurich, made the remarks during a recent opening of the university’s new Center for the Origin and Prevalence of Life.
Speaking at a press briefing on September 2, Quanz detailed the technology projects currently underway that could allow researchers to finally answer the question of whether we are alone in the world. universe.
“In 1995, my colleague [and Noble Prize laureate] Didier Queloz discovered the first planet outside our solar system,” Quanz said during the briefing. “Today more than 5,000 exoplanets are known and we discover them daily.”
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There are many more exoplanets to find out since astronomers believe that each of the more than 100 billion stars in the milky way galaxy has at least one companion planet. That’s a huge number of exoplanets, many of which, Quanz added, are like Earth and at the right distance from their host stars to allow for living conditions, such as the presence of liquid water.
“What we don’t know is whether these terrestrial planets have atmospheres and what those atmospheres are made of,” Quanz said. “We need to study the atmospheres of these planets. We need an observational approach that would allow us to take pictures of these planets.”
The briefing took place just a day after the team exited the James Webb Space Telescope First direct image of an exoplanet by Webb in orbit around a distant star: the massif The gas giant HIP 65426 b, a planet 12 times larger than Jupiter orbiting 100 Sun-Earth distances from its parent star.
The James Webb Space Telescopewhich was not designed to study exoplanets but to search for the oldest stars in the universe, has already achieved a series of breakthroughs in exoplanet research, including detect carbon dioxide and water in the atmospheres of several of them. Quanz, however, warns that Webb, although the most powerful observatory ever put in space, is not powerful enough to be able to see the much smaller, Earth-like planets orbiting closer to their stars. at distances where liquid water can exist.
“[The HIP 65426] system is a very special system,” Quanz said. “It’s a gas giant planet orbiting very far from the star. That’s what Webb can do to take pictures of planets. We will not be able to reach the small planets. Webb is not strong 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. Quanz and his team are leading the development of the Mid-Infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS), a first-of-its-kind instrument that will be part of the Extremely large telescope (ELT). Currently under construction by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, ELT, when completed later this decade, will feature a 130-foot-wide (40-meter) mirror, making it the largest optical telescope in the world.
“The primary goal of the instrument is to take the first image of a terrestrial, potentially Earth-like planet around one of the nearest stars,” Quanz said. “But our long-term vision is to do this not just for a few stars but for dozens of stars, and to study the atmospheres of dozens of terrestrial exoplanets.”
Quanz admits that the METIS instrument may not yet be the one picking up signs of life on a planet outside the solar system. A ground-based telescope, like the ELT, has to deal with interference from earth’s atmosphere, which skews measurements of the chemistry of the atmospheres surrounding distant worlds. And since Webb isn’t quite up to the task, a whole new mission will be needed to answer the big question. That mission, Quanz said, is already being discussed under the auspices of the European Space Agency (ESA). Called LIFE (for Large Interferometer for Exoplanets), the mission, designed in 2017, is currently in its first phase of studies and has not yet been officially approved or funded.
“[The mission] is considered a candidate for a future major mission under ESA’s science program,” Quanz said.
The space telescope would examine a large number of promising exoplanets in search of traces of molecules in the atmosphere of these distant planets that could have been created by living organisms.
The new center at ETH Zurich hopes to lay the groundwork for this future mission, Quanz said, and improve our understanding of the chemistry of life and how it affects planetary atmospheres and environments.
“We need to better understand the plausible building blocks of life, pathways and time scales of chemical reactions, and external conditions to help us prioritize target stars and target planets,” Quantz said. “We need to check to what extent the traces of life are true bioindicators, because there may be other processes that could lead to the creation of gases in these atmospheres.”
Quantz added that while ambitious, the 25-year timeline he has set for finding 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.
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