How ESA plans to find other Earth-like planets

Saturday, May 31, 2008

imageThere was an article today on about this. It's nice to see as I consider this to be our most important goal in the next few years, something that will completely change the way the average person thinks about space. It's one thing to know that there are hundreds of gas giants out there in other solar systems, but it's a completely different matter to know that there's another planet about our size, similar in temperature, a place that probably has seasons and oceans and some sort of life, and perhaps a climate where we could just touch down and start living, if we could just find a way to get there. It won't be long now, just a few more years (assuming Kepler goes as planned).

So, let's see what it has to say. Here's part of it:

ESA is launching a new initiative to develop a roadmap for finding Earth-like planets. Searching for rocky planets around other stars, in the hopes of finding an Earth-like world, is a top scientific goal in ESA's Cosmic Vision programme.

Achieving this ambition requires a great deal of technological development, and a constant eye on the changes taking place across this fast-moving field of research. To provide an overview of the field and a set of technological milestones that must be achieved before rocky planets can be analysed, ESA has appointed the Exoplanet Roadmap Advisory Team.

The team consists of ten exoplanet experts from across Europe and is chaired by Artie Hatzes, Director of the Thueringer Landessternwarte (in) Tautenburg, Germany.

The search for exoplanets is a hot research topic. It has one great goal driving it forward: to find out how many habitable Earth-like planets there might be in the galaxy.

To do this, there has to be a threefold strategy. Firstly, observers must tell us what is out there. Secondly, theoreticians must tell us what we might expect to find. And thirdly, technologists must tell us which instruments we need to find these things.


Ultimately, we want to obtain an image of an Earth-like planet and spectroscopically analyse its atmosphere. This will tell us whether there's oxygen, ozone, carbon dioxide and water vapour in its atmosphere. When we see all the right constituents for life then we can say, "Yes, that is a twin to Earth." The roadmap will provide us with a plan to reach that goal.

What do you hope to achieve with this roadmap?

Once we have collected the white papers, the team will put them all together. By early next year we will have a concrete roadmap. This will include what we have to do scientifically and technologically in the next year, the next 5-10 years, and then the next 20 years, to achieve our scientific goal of characterising Earth-like worlds.

I should note that even though he is correct that it will take that much time to fully characterize possible Earth-like worlds, I'm talking about a shift in consciousness rather than a complete understanding, and the simple discovery of a very good Earthlike candidate could do the trick. Last year when the super-Earth Gliese 581 c was discovered there was a flurry of media attention for a while, though it has a much higher gravity and possible much higher surface temperature which calmed down speculation of what might be there for a bit. I'm looking forward to something even more similar to this one, and the closer the better too.


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