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Astronomers Search for Signs of Life in the Skies of Distant Exoplanets
The News - Science-Astronomy
June 18, 2013
exoplanets and life
Nobody who was there at the time, from the most seasoned astrophysicist to the most inexperienced science reporter, is likely to forget a press conference at the American Astronomical Society's winter meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in January 1996. It was there that Geoffrey W. Marcy, an observer then at San Francisco State University, announced that he and his observing partner, R. Paul Butler, then at the University of California, Berkeley, had discovered the second and third planets ever found orbiting a sunlike star. The first such planet, 51 Pegasi b, had been announced by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva a few months earlier—but a single detection could have been a fluke or even a mistake. Now Marcy was able to say confidently that it had been neither. “Planets,” he told the crowd, “aren't rare after all.”

The announcement shook the world of astronomy. Almost nobody had been looking for planets because scientists were convinced they would be too hard to find. Now, after searching a mere handful of stars, astronomers had discovered three worlds, suggesting billions more waiting to be found.

In Brief

  • Common wisdom once held that it would be nearly impossible to investigate the atmospheres of distant exoplanets—the glare from their parent star would be too bright.
  • Yet once scientists began to study exoplanets as they passed behind their star, they realized that the resulting change in stellar brightness could provide clues to what the atmospheres are made of.
  • Astronomers are now using these advanced techniques to detect atoms and molecules of exoplanetary atmospheres. They hope to soon extend their search to molecules that will provide evidence of distant life.

A Cosmic Map of the Exoplanets [Interactive] (click to visit)

An interactive graphic charts the location and distance to 861 known exoplanets, highlighting those that might hold life

Exoplanet hunters have been busy. Since 2011 astronomers have discovered, on average, about three exoplanets every week—a precious few of which lie in the “habitable zone,” where water could take liquid form. This chart maps the known cosmic neighborhood of 861 planets. Click on the options under "Select layout" to map the planets based on their location in the sky, or on their distance from the Sun. (Since the Kepler planet-hunting satellite aims at a single spot in the Northern Hemisphere, a huge group of planets can be found near the 18-hour mark.)

Here we've separated the planets into four categories. Gas giants, the easiest to find, are massive planets the size of Jupiter, Saturn and above. Neptunian planets are smaller gaseous objects that still weigh more than 10 Earth masses. Super-Earths weigh between two and 10 Earth masses; these planets could be either rocky or perhaps made of gas. And the Terrestrial planets are those with an Earth-like size.

Despite the apparent multitude of nearby planets, researchers have been able to find just a minuscule fraction of what’s out there. Astronomers estimate that our Milky Way galaxy holds more than 100 billion planets.


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