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Astronomers suggest last year’s groundbreaking discovery of exoplanets which could support life could inspire major international effort
US researchers believe one of the world’s most significant scientific discoveries in recent years – that extrasolar planets can harbor life – could be harnessed as a massive lever to inspire a new international search for alien life.
The discovery of at least 150 planets beyond the solar system by a team led by the University of Texas’s University of Texas at Austin – taken as a sign that life might actually be common – has caught the attention of government agencies and charities that increasingly view the search for extraterrestrial life as a top priority.
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A week after the discoveries were announced in September 2016, former head of the International Astronomical Union Michel Mayor declared the discovery a “significant milestone”.
But he also cautioned that the search for extraterrestrial life would be a “long process”.
Now, astronomers have released a report that recommends “accelerated global resources to search for new worlds that might be habitable or have active inhabitants” and suggests the establishment of a “UNexpo” to energize the search.
“There is an awakening going on in a lot of people about these searches, especially around the UN Exposition,” said Avi Loeb, a planetary scientist at Harvard University, referring to the anniversary of the 1981 discovery of the first exoplanet around a sun-like star in January 2020.
“We believe that these discoveries will begin to change the way people look at the universe.”
The announcement of the discovery of 100 planets outside our solar system – along with their sizes and confirmed sizes – occurred just days after Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope detected the first worlds within the “habitable zone” of a star, a region in which liquid water could exist on the surface of a planet.
Observations by Kepler and Kepler-Rassau, another planet-finding spacecraft orbiting a star similar to the sun, have provided detailed measurements of the planet’s temperature and distance from its star.
Using them, researchers were able to determine the planet’s potential radius, the size of its atmosphere and what it would take to raise enough energy to sustain a surface on the surface of a rocky, watery planet.
“We have solved the first step in forming a planet,” Loeb said.
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“We now have a better idea about the kind of things that will constitute a habitable planet: a nice rock with water on the surface, perhaps,” he said.
“We’re in a search mode now. The search is wide open.”
As such, Loeb said it might be time to “repurpose” NASA’s Kepler telescope, which is set to retire next year.
Astronomers hope the telescope, which was part of NASA’s orbit-time-based and space-based search for life, will be used to hunt for potentially habitable worlds around other stars or in other star systems.
“Kepler detects planets and then uses Earth’s mass and size to determine how much mass planets have,” Loeb said.
“This could be a starting point for new searches.”