A Space Odyssey: 21 Years of Searching for Another Earth
There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world. – Epicurus, c. 300 B.C.
Are we alone? Are there other planets like ours? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?
These are questions mankind has been asking for years—since the time of Greek philosophers. But for years, those answers have been elusive, if not impossible to find.
The month of October marks the 21st anniversary of the discovery of the first planet orbiting another sun-like star (aka. an exoplanet), 51 Pegasi b or “Dimidium.” Its existence proved that there were other planets in the galaxy outside our solar system.*
Even more exciting is the fact that astronomers are in hot pursuit of the first discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting a star other than the sun. The discovery of the so-called “blue dot” could redefine our understanding of the universe and our place in it, especially if astronomers can also find signs that life exists on that planet’s surface.
Astronomy is entering a fascinating era where we’re beginning to answer tantalizing questions that people have pondered for thousands of years.
Are we alone?
In 1584, when the Catholic monk Giordano Bruno asserted that there were “countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns,” he was accused of heresy.
But even in Bruno’s time, the idea of a plurality of worlds wasn’t entirely new. As far back as ancient Greece, humankind has speculated that other solar systems might exist and that some would harbor other forms of life.
Still, centuries passed without convincing proof of planets around even the nearest stars.
Are there other planets like ours?
The first discovery of a planet orbiting a star similar to the sun came in 1995. The Swiss team of Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of Geneva announced that they had found a rapidly orbiting gas world located blisteringly close to the star 51 Pegasi.
This announcement marked the beginning of a flood of discoveries. Exotic discoveries transformed science fiction into science fact:
- a pink planet
- worlds with two or even three suns
- a gas giant as light as Styrofoam
- a world in the shape of an egg
- a lava planet
But what about another Earth?
Our first exoplanet mission**, Kepler, launched in 2009 and revolutionized how astronomers understand the universe and our place in it. Kepler was built to answer the question—how many habitable planets exist in our galaxy?
And it delivered: Thousands of planet discoveries poured in, providing statistical proof that one in five sun-like stars (yellow, main-sequence G type) harbor Earth-sized planets orbiting in their habitable zones– where it’s possible liquid water could exist on their surface.
Now, our other missions like the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes point at promising planetary systems (TRAPPIST-1) to figure out whether they are suitable for life as we know it.
Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?
Now that exoplanet-hunting is a mainstream part of astronomy, the race is on to build instruments that can find more and more planets, especially worlds that could be like our own.
Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), set for launch in 2017-2018, will look for super-Earth and Earth-sized planets around stars much closer to home. TESS will find new planets the same way Kepler does—via the transit method—but will cover 400 times the sky area.
The James Webb Space Telescope, to launch in 2018, wil be our most powerful space telescope to date. Webb will use its spectrograph to look at exoplanet atmospheres, searching for signs of life.
We still don’t know where or which planets are in the habitable zones of the nearest stars to Earth. Searching out our nearest potentially habitable neighbors will be the next chapter in this unfolding story.
*The first true discovery of extrasolar planets was actually a triplet of dead worlds orbiting the remains of an exploded star, called a pulsar star. Two of three were found by Dr. Alexander Wolszczan in 1992– a full three years before Dimidium’s discovery. But because they are so strange, and can’t support life as we know it, most scientists would reserve the “first” designation for a planet orbiting a normal star.
** The French CoRoT mission, launched in 2006, was the first dedicated exoplanet space mission. It has contributed dozens of confirmed exoplanets to the ranks and boasts a roster of some of the most well-studied planets outside our solar system.
To stay up-to-date on our latest exoplanet discoveries, visit: https://exoplanets.nasa.gov
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