Image copyright NASA Image caption The planet Ryugu (left) lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter
The chances of finding evidence of alien life on other planets in our solar system and beyond “continue to improve, but are not yet within our reach”, according to a new NASA mission concept study.
The report follows research that examined “the economic viability of discovering and characterising an Earth-like exoplanet.”
It says a new plan should include technological advances to find and find out about “living worlds”.
The study says it is also possible to distinguish between the atmospheres of planets in the habitable zone.
The existence of life on another planet has never been confirmed and this report calls for more detailed analyses of the tiny clumps of dust and atmospheric gases that comprise exoplanets’ atmospheres.
In coming months, NASA’s Webb Space Telescope will be launched into orbit around the sun. In its mission to image smaller and more distant exoplanets, Webb will be expected to obtain detailed information about the chemical make-up of exoplanets’ atmospheres.
Image copyright NASA Image caption NASA scientists are searching for life in Pluto’s atmosphere
In the near future, NASA believes other telescopes may be needed to better examine the atmospheres of exoplanets.
For this study, NASA scientists used data from missions Kepler and TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which are analysing starlight to try to detect the light from exoplanets in their orbits.
In total, scientists have identified more than 4,000 candidates that could be similar to Earth.
Originally intended to do an observational study, the TESS telescope has now expanded its search to the search for planets that could be similar to Earth. The TESS mission was launched in May this year.
The research team also looked at how the solar system compares with possible worlds that could host life.
They were particularly concerned about life on such a small (less than 1% of the size of the Earth) rocky world as compared to other planetary systems.
The astronomers thought that cooler planets in this range would have a high melting point and therefore it is probably very unlikely they will harbour life.
The distance of the planet from its star determines whether it has a surface similar to Earth. Higher temperatures mean the surface is less likely to be habitable and with the rockier composition of a rocky world.
The study, drawn up by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, points out that in fact, some exoplanets do have rocky structures which could support the possibility of life.
They say a new mission concept could determine which solar system worlds are habitable planets using a new approach.
Its major goals would be:
– Could anyone go there?
– Discover and characterise habitable exoplanets within the habitable zone
– Maintain a line of sight on the planet for orbit-hopping spacecraft, such as the James Webb Space Telescope
– Ensure a constant flow of data to follow a planet’s orbit around its star
For an examination of this in further detail, you can now watch the webcast NASA will show on 13 December in which scientists discuss this new report and what you can expect from the Webb Space Telescope’s planned 2020 launch.