To find living exoplanets (Sara Seager talk)
One of the leaders of exoplanet discovery is Sara Seager at MIT. She recently gave a talk at Long Now in San Francisco on the subject. Here's my summary...Thanks to recent exoplanet research
, Seager began, we now know that nearly all of our galaxy’s 300 billion stars are accompanied by planets, and a unexpectedly high number of them are rocky like Earth, and many of those orbit in a “habitable” range—meaning that they could harbor liquid water and perhaps life. How can we detect that life?
(To learn about the 4,700-plus planets so far discovered, Seager recommended an exciting dynamic map and encyclopedia from NASA called “Eyes on Exoplanets.” http://eyes.jpl.nasa.gov/eyes-on-exoplanets.html
Seager predicts that “If an Earth 2.0 exists, we have the capability to find and identify it by the 02020s.”)
The way to discover life from a distance is to search for spectrographic evidence of “biosignature gases” such as oxygen or methane in the planetary atmosphere. To do that we have to acquire direct imaging of the rocky planets, but we can’t because our telescopes are blinded by the brilliance of the planet’s star, a billion times brighter than the planet. “It’s like looking for a firefly next to a searchlight, from thousands of miles away,” Seager said. Even the next planet-discovery telescope, called TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which is coming in 02018, will not be able to study exoplanet atmospheres.
The solution that Seager has been working on is called Starshade. http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/video/15
To perfectly occult a star with a perfectly dark, hard-edged shadow, it will be deployed tens of thousands of kilometers from its telescope. It will be a disk 15 to 20 meters in diameter, with a perimeter of exotically shaped “petals” to defeat the effect of light diffracting around the edges of the disk. The edges have to be geometrically exact and machined to razor sharpness. The Starshade would fly in formation with a telescope located at the stable Lagrange point called L2, a million miles from Earth in the direction away from the Sun. The cost, including launch, will be about $650 million—not currently budgeted by NASA.
Now that we know planets are extremely common, one of the profoundest questions is whether life is also common in our galaxy, or is it extremely rare? Seager thinks that life abounds out there, and we will be able to point to examples in this century.