Earth-like planets may be orbiting around stars surrounding our own solar system, and a new generation of instruments could assist astronomers in finding extraterrestrial life.
Over 1,000 planets have been confirmed by astronomers circling other stars, and new findings are now common. The Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009 on a mission to find other planets, has discovered hundreds of alien worlds. At least three of these planets reside in the habitable, or "Goldilocks Zone" from their sun, where liquid water is likely to exist on the surface of a given planet. The next step, many astronomers believe, is to find alien life living on one or more exoplanets outside our own solar system.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), designed and billed as the successor to Hubble, is one of the new tools that could be used to find life surrounding other stars. This space-borne observatory, scheduled for launch in 2018, will feature a main mirror over 21 feet across. This will allow the new observatory to gather far more light than its predecessor, allowing astronomers to view objects far too dim to be seen using the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Several innovative technologies have been developed for Webb. These include a folding, segmented primary mirror, adjusted to shape after launch; ultra-lightweight beryllium optics; detectors able to record extremely weak signals, [and] microshutters that enable programmable object selection for the spectrograph," NASA officials wrote on the project Web page.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will monitor over 500,000 stars, searching for minor drops in light, caused by planets orbiting between a stellar body and the Earth. By monitoring these decreases in the amount of light seen by observatories on Earth, astronomers are able to calculate the diameter of an exoplanet, as well as the length of its year, and distance from its parent star. The TESS satellite is due for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in August 2017.
The Minerva Observatory on Mount Hopkins in southern Arizona is currently in operation, and could be capable of discovering super-Earths orbiting in the habitable zone around other stars. This observatory is composed of four robotic telescopes, capable of finding planets circling alien suns.
The Gaia spacecraft was launched into space by the European Space Agency (ESA) in December 2013. This observatory was designed to measure distances to other stars, with an accuracy never before possible with any previous instrument.
"In addition to creating a magnificent 3D map of almost 1% of the stars in our galaxy, Gaia's observations will be of such quality that it should detect tens of thousands of new exoplanets, as a result of the wobble they induce in their host stars," Jonti Horner, Brad Carter, and Belinda Nicholson wrote in an article published on The Conversation.
With new tools currently in operation, and those entering service over the next few years, finding alien life may, one day soon, be as common as finding planets today.