Researchers spying for signs of life among exoplanet atmospheres

The next generation of advanced telescopes could sharpen the hunt for potential extraterrestrial life by closely scrutinizing the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, new research suggests. 

Published recently in , performed better for three planets (GJ 887 b, Proxima b and Wolf 1061 c) in discerning the presence of methane, carbon dioxide and water, while its High Angular Resolution Monolithic Optical and Near-infrared Integral field spectrograph instrument could detect methane, carbon dioxide, oxygen and water, but needed a great deal more exposure time.

Additionally, since these conclusions were about instruments that will have to peer through the chemical fog of Earth’s atmosphere to progress the search for cosmic life, they were compared to JWST’s current outer space capabilities, said Zhang. 

“It’s hard to say whether space telescopes are better than ground-based telescopes, because they’re different,” he said. “They have different environments, different locations, and their observations have different influences.”

In this case, findings revealed that while GJ 887 b is one of the most suitable targets for ELT direct imaging as its location and size result in an especially high signal-to-noise ratio, for some transiting planets, such as the TRAPPIST-1 system, JWST’s techniques for studying planetary atmospheres are more suitable for detecting them than direct imaging from the ELTs on Earth. 

But because the study took on a more conservative assumption with the data, Zhang said, the true effectiveness of future astronomical tools could still surprise scientists. And subtle contrasts in performance aside, these powerful technologies serve to widen our understanding of the universe and are meant to complement each other, said Ji Wang, co-author of the study and an assistant professor in astronomy at Ohio State. It’s why studies like this one, that assess the limitations of those technologies, is necessary, he said. 

“The importance of simulation, especially for missions that cost billions of dollars, cannot be stressed enough,” said Wang. “Not only do people have to build the hardware, they also try really hard to simulate the performance and be prepared to achieve those glorious results.”

In all likelihood, as the ELTs won’t be completed until the tail end of the decade, researchers’ next steps will settle around simulating how well future ELT instruments will take to investigating the intricacies of our own planet’s rampant proofs of life. 

“We want to see to what extent we can study our atmosphere to exquisite detail and how much information we can extract from it,” said Wang. “Because if we cannot answer habitability questions with Earth’s atmosphere, then there’s no way we can start to answer these questions around other planets.”

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