Until now, there was no way for us to compare and rank planets outside of our solar system according to their habitability. A group of astronomers along with researchers from the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory recently found a way to rank planets according to this variable. This means that it will be much easier for scientists to prioritize the planets that we could possibly colonize in the future.
Scientists called the new metric “the habitability index for transiting planets.” The term appeared in the research paper, which was published in the Astrophysical Journal. The author of the research is Rory Barnes, professor of astronomy at the UW.
Barnes declared that he and his colleagues conceived a way of taking all observational data available and developing a scheme that would help astronomers decide what planet of the hundreds of planets suspected of life sustainability is actually worth our attention.
Until now, the Kepler Space Telescope has allowed astronomers to observe thousands of planets beyond our solar system (exoplanets), of which a few hundreds are suspected of having conditions relatively similar to those we find on Earth.
In addition, with the James Space Telescope, which is still in development, astronomers will be able to measure the actual atmospheric composition of certain planets in the universe. The telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018 and it will greatly increase our chances of finding another planet that could sustain life, and who knows, maybe even roamed by extraterrestrials.
The current technique is simple, but time-consuming. Astronomers have to wait for the planets to transit their host star (pass in front of it). Then all of the light from the star will be blocked, giving scientists the chance to explore the surface of the exoplanets.
In fact, there is a telescope that will be built especially for that in 2017. It’s called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. This telescope will use spectroscopy technologies that will enable astronomers hunt for life much more effectively than ever before.
The new scheme was created in order to give astronomers an idea before the two telescopes will be launched. The access to these telescope will be indeed expensive, while the work would be just as time-consuming as we can imagine. The new scheme will help astronomers focus on the planets that could be hosting life with limited resources.
The index will allow researchers to estimate the rockiness, atmospheric composition and possibly if they hold any water.
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