The Earth from space

Exoplanet discovery prompts fresh ‘are we alone?’ questions

An expert in planetary science at the University says the explosion of findings of planets detected around others stars will prompt fresh questions over other forms of life in the universe.

He was commenting on news that the number of planets detected around other stars – or exoplanets – is set to hit the 4,000 mark. It’s an indication of just how common planets are – with most stars in the Milky Way hosting at least one world in orbit around them.

Professor Nigel Mason, Head of the University’s School of Physical Sciences, said: ‘The discovery of an ever increasing number of exoplanets, many of which may be in so called habitable zones is opening a new field of study – the search for signatures of life outside our solar system.

We are not looking for aliens as in the Hollywood movies but rather we will have the ability to look for molecular signatures in the atmospheres of such planets that may provide evidence for life, or at least life as we know it e.g. photosynthetic life. The next generation of space missions such as ARIEL – a UK led ESA mission- may provide such evidence.

‘This area of science is commonly known as astrobiology and in 2019 Europe will establish the European Astrobiology Institute, bringing together scientists from many different disciplines to seek answer to the question that has long fascinated humanity: “are we alone?”. It remains to be seen whether they will establish the answer.’

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