As NASA works on a mission to explore the Kepler telescope, a fleet of telescopes, scientists are calling for new efforts to search for life beyond Earth.
In a December 7 essay published in Science Advances, a group of scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory detailed a blueprint for the search for aliens. While the point-of-view of the essay is directed at NASA scientists, the effort and ideas expressed in it dovetail closely with the recommendations of Elon Musk, the billionaire who started SpaceX and opened the Boring Company in the hope of one day constructing an underground tunnel system to help alleviate the gridlock across Los Angeles.
The lengthy essay includes a long list of proposals for the search for intelligent life. These ideas include many that already have broad support in the scientific community — including unmanned spacecraft that might take a literal bite out of Earth, using a laser to zap planets in other solar systems. Other proposals would use more traditional scientific means, such as real-time spectroscopy of stars, techniques that can estimate chemical composition, and laser radiation such as X-rays, near-infrared and gamma-rays to investigate the atmospheres of planets. “These types of measurements can also be carried out in conjunction with the optical instrumentation on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2021,” the authors wrote.
The new techniques and budgets are ambitious but the authors argue that they could make it possible to take advantage of technological advances in the next few years to begin the hunt for Earth-like planets in habitable zones. If life could exist in such an environment, then, as the authors argue, it would likely “exist in the presence of a co-evolutionary and mutually supportive environment with Earth.”
A first step could be to set up a network of telescopes that could do the kind of real-time spectroscopy needed to separate atmosphere-like atmospheres from those of other worlds, and researchers still have questions that they hope to answer. Among the questions that remain are the identity of planets orbiting stars close to their suns; the chemicals that might exist in the atmosphere; and the existence of life and whether it could exist.
“The next step after the single-host planet proposal will require integrating theoretical research with approaches that can be realized in technology on Earth and currently under construction in space,” the authors wrote.
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