What does the next generation telescope need to detect life?
Almost 2,000 extrasolar planets have been discovered to date. Yet, we still know little about these alien worlds, especially their atmospheres. The atmospheres of terrestrial exoplanets could betray the presence of life on the planet, sparking NASA's interest in acquiring the spectra that appears as starlight shines through these atmospheres.
A paper by Timothy Brandt and David Spiegel, exo-planetary scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, details what is needed in a next generation telescope for it to be capable of detecting signatures of life in the atmospheres of alien planets. The paper has been published in the September issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Astronomers employ several different methods to study the atmospheres of gas giants that orbit close to their host stars. One such method involves comparing the spectrum of a star when a planet is transiting across the surface to a spectrum when the planet is out of transit. By comparing the spectra, it is possible to see which elements exist in the planet's atmosphere.
Methods like this still can't be used for terrestrial planets, as the height of the atmosphere engulfing a rocky planet is miniscule compared to that of a gas giant. Earth-like planets also orbit their stars at a larger distance, making it even more difficult to observe their atmospheres.
Observations of terrestrial planet atmospheres will require a specialized space mission that will use a coronograph to block out the blinding light of the star. While the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018, will be capable of detecting elements in planetary atmospheres, it will still be limited to more massive planets.