We can spot life outside the solar system in the next 25 years, says astrophysicist

Work is afoot to build the necessary instruments to do so.
Ameya Paleja


ETH Zurich, the Swiss federal institute, recently opened its new Center for the Origin and Prevalence of Life, an interdisciplinary institute to analyze the current and future observations of the Earth and the universe. During the opening ceremony, astrophysicist Sasha Quanz said that we might be able to detect the presence of life outside our solar system in the next 25 years, Space.com reported.

The claim might sound too ambitious, especially when, after years of work, we are still not sure if planets inside the solar system can support life. However, Quanz recollected that it was only the year 1995 that we had discovered the first planet outside our solar system. In less than three decades, we now have a potential list of 100 billion exoplanets to be discovered in the Milky Way galaxy alone.

Astronomers are of the view that the 100 billion stars in the galaxy have at least one planet in their orbit that would be at the right distance from it to have liquid water and support conditions for life. What astronomers need to find out is whether these exoplanets have an atmosphere and what it is made up of.

Shortcomings of the Webb Space Telescope

Quanz's statement also came just a day after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) sent us its first image of an exoplanet. As reported earlier, the JWST captured the image of the gas giant HIP 65426 and a planet orbiting it, HIP 65426 b, which is estimated to be 12 times the size of Jupiter.

We can spot life outside the solar system in the next 25 years, says astrophysicist
A transmission spectrum of the hot gas giant WASP-39 b captured by JWST reveals the first clear evidence for carbon dioxide in an exoplanet

In addition, the JWST has also looked at older stars in the universe and detected carbon dioxide and water in their exoplanets. While this is a great accomplishment, the JWST was not equipped to study exoplanets and falls severely short in detecting Earth-sized planets which are possibly orbiting closer to their star and upon which water exists in liquid form.

Turning to METIS and beyond

Quanz added that the job of looking at smaller exoplanets was best done by specialized telescopes such as the mid-infrared ELT imager and spectrograph (METIS), which is currently being built in Chile as part of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). When completed at the end of the decade, METIS will boast of a 130-foot-wide (40 m) mirror, the largest for an optical telescope on the planet.

This will help astronomers take not only pictures of nearby exoplanets but also investigate their atmosphere. Quanz is also well aware that based on Earth, METIS's observations will be influenced by the planet's atmosphere, and therefore, a specialized mission will be needed to be sent out to space, like the JWST but looking for habitable exoplanets.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is already currently working on the early phases of such a project called Large Interferometer for Exoplanets (LIFE), although its development hasn't been funded yet. Such a large telescope could look at a great number of exoplanets and trace the molecules in their atmosphere for signs of life.

The Center for the Origin and Prevalence of Life would work to lay the groundwork for such a mission, and although a 25-year timeline for this would be ambitious, it wouldn't be unrealistic, the astrophysicist said.

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