Friday, April 26, 2013

NASA Could Find Extraterrestrial Life Within 10 Years

NASA may find a planet capable of supporting extraterrestrial life within the decade.

Counter to what many believe, most such planets capable of holding extraterrestrial life would not orbit a sun-like star, but rather a white dwarf. White dwarfs are dead stars that eventually cool down and fade off. They are the most likely candidates for supporting Earth-like planets because they contain heavy elements. 

Planets orbiting white dwarfs are also easier to spot than those that orbit other types of stars. In order to detect a planet orbiting a white dwarf, scientists look for a dimming of the dead star's light as the planet passes in front of it.Scientists have conducted an experiment showing that NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018, will be able to locate planets able to support extraterrestrial life in unprecedented numbers, possibly taking just a few hours to find water and oxygen in a planet's atmosphere.

"The difficulty lies in the extreme faintness of the signal, which is hidden in the glare of the 'parent' star," researcher Dan Maoz said in a press release. "The novelty of our idea is that, if the parent star is a white dwarf whose size is comparable to that of an Earth-sized planet, that glare is greatly reduced, and we can now realistically contemplate seeing the oxygen biomarker."

In order to help determine the accuracy of the James Webb Telescope in detecting planets that can support extraterrestrial life, scientists performed a test using a simulated spectrum. The scientists tried to see if the telescope would be able to detect the spectrum, which was made to mimic an inhabited planet like Earth that orbited a white dwarf. The test results indicated that the telescope would have the ability to detect the extraterrestrial life-supporting planet.

The study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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