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Space

Astronomers Calculate How To Spot Life On an Alien Earth 46

Posted by Soulskill
from the E.T.-=-mc^2 dept.
KentuckyFC writes: "One of the main goals of the space program is to spot an Earth-like planet orbiting another star. And by Earth-like, astronomers mean a planet with liquid water, gaseous oxygen and even chlorophyll, or a light-harvesting molecule like it. The biosignatures of these molecules were all observed during the first Earth fly-by in 1990 when the Galileo spacecraft measured the light reflected off Earth as it flew past on its way to Jupiter. But if these biosignatures exist on more distant exoplanets, could we spot them today? Now astronomers have calculated how good the next generation of space telescopes will have to be to pick up these biosignatures of life. They say that gaseous water should be relatively straightforward to pick out and that oxygen will be more challenging. But the spectral signature of chlorophyll-like molecules will be much harder to spot, requiring significantly more sensitivity than is possible today (either that or a great deal of luck). That suggests a plan, they say. The next generation of space telescopes should look for water and oxygen on exoplanets orbiting nearby stars and only then begin the time-consuming and expensive task of looking for chlorophyll on the most promising targets. One spacecraft that might do this is the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope or ATLAST that is currently scheduled for launch in the 2025-2035 time frame."
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Astronomers Calculate How To Spot Life On an Alien Earth

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  • by Dimwit (36756) on Friday May 02, 2014 @12:40PM (#46900371)

    It's not so much a big assumption as it is a starting point. There is probably a biosphere somewhere in the Universe that uses a red or yellow pigment for photosynthesis. The problem is that detecting it at a distance is much harder, because while we might see the spectral signature we couldn't be sure that it's life.

    Looking for a biosphere that is very similar to that of Earth makes it much more likely that we'll be able to detect that it is in fact "life" and not something else. While we may miss 99% of the life in the Universe with this approach, if/when we do detect it, our confidence will be much higher.

How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else. -- R. Buckminster Fuller

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