Which Telescope Holds the Highest Potential for Uncovering Extraterrestrial Life First?

The European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), set to be operational in the next two decades, may hold our best chance of discovering biosignatures on exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system that could potentially support life. This is according to a recent study that simulated conditions needed to sustain life on such planets, like Proxima Centauri b.

The study’s findings will enable astronomers to hone in on key exoplanetary targets from the 2030s onwards. In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of these exoplanets, researchers not only evaluate their physical attributes such as mass, radius, and orbital period, but also study their atmospheres.

Studying the atmosphere of an exoplanet is a complex process which involves the use of transit spectroscopy. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one such instrument that employs this method. When a planet transits, or moves in front of its star as observed from the telescope’s viewpoint, the star’s light passes through the planet’s atmosphere. The molecules present in the atmosphere can absorb the starlight. Importantly, different molecules absorb light at distinct wavelengths, essentially leaving their unique imprints. This is how JWST recently detected traces of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere of the exoplanet K2-18b.

However, most of the exoplanets that have been imaged so far, like HD 950086b, are large, young worlds that are still warm from their formation processes. Due to their size and distance from their parent star, they emit strong infrared light. These planets appear as tiny points of light to us, within which are hidden absorption lines linked to chemicals in their atmospheres.

The challenge lies in distinguishing the planet’s light from the background data to extract these spectral features. This requires a very large telescope that can achieve a high signal-to-noise ratio. The European Extremely Large Telescope, with its advanced capabilities, could be the answer to this challenge. It represents a significant stride forward in the search for life-sustaining planets beyond our solar system.

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