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Scientist anticipates finding life beyond our solar system in 25 years

An artist's rendering of the <em>Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is currently under construction at Cerro Armazones in Chile's Atacama Desert. It has an instrument that could help find life beyond our solar system. Credit: ESO

An artist’s rendering of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is currently under construction at Cerro Armazones in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It has an instrument that could help find life beyond our solar system. Credit: ESO

Several missions that could detect life beyond our solar system are currently in development, Swiss astrophysicist Sasha Quanz said at the recent opening of ETH Zurich‘s Centre for the Origin and Prevalence of Life.

More than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered since the first one was found in 1995. The Milky Way galaxy contains over 100 billion stars, and astronomers believe most or all of these stars are orbited by at least one planet.

To be considered habitable, a planet must orbit its star at a distance that allows liquid water to exist on its surface.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched in December 2021, has detected carbon dioxide and water in the atmospheres of several large exoplanets.

While it is the most powerful space telescope ever launched, JWST is not designed to study smaller, Earth-like planets, as opposed to gas giants. However, several other instruments currently in development will have that capability, Quanz said.

He is currently working on one of these — the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) mid-infrared imager and spectrograph, known as METIS.

ELT, scheduled to be completed in 2028, is located at the European Southern Observatory‘s (ESO) facility in Chile. With a 130-foot (40-meter) wide mirror, ELT will be the world’s largest ground-based optical telescope.

Regarding METIS, Quanz said, “The primary goal of the instrument is to take the first picture of a terrestrial planet, potentially similar to Earth, around one of the very nearest stars. But our long-term vision is to do that not only for a few stars, but for dozens of stars, and to investigate the atmospheres of terrestrial exoplanets.”

As a ground-based telescope, ELT will be subject to the effects of Earth’s atmosphere, which could distort measurements of exoplanet atmospheres.

For this reason, scientists at the European Space Agency are discussing a new space telescope titled the Large Interferometer for Exoplanets or LIFE, with capabilities beyond those of JWST.

First proposed in 2017 and not yet funded, but under development by ETH Zurich‘s new center, LIFE will be capable of probing Earth-like exoplanet atmospheres to search for molecules produced by biological processes.

“What we do not know is if these terrestrial planets have atmospheres and what these atmospheres are made of,” Quanz said. “We need to investigate the atmospheres of these planets. We need an observational approach that would allow us to take pictures of these planets.”


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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