Search For Alien Life On Other Worlds May Soon Center On Plants


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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Scientists believe they can detect plant life on distant worlds with existing telescope technology, according to a Tuesday Universe Today piece.

University of Freiburg researchers found that detecting plant life on planets outside of our solar system could be done with modern telescopes, using methods already employed to classify different stars based on their light.

Using this method, scientists look for plants that cause periodic variations in the levels of light reflected. Vegetation absorbs nearly all of the red, green and blue parts of the light spectrum, according to researchers. Plants reflect infrared light in a unique way that Earth-based telescopes should be able to detect.

The presence of chlorophyll or a similar substance also makes red, green or blue light highly polarized. This could allow astronomers to tell the difference between vegetation and something that is simply green in color. Currently, such polarization in a star’s light curve is used to to determine the star’s class and can even be used to determine if it has a planet.

Earth observation satellites have used a similar technique for decades to measure the extent of forests and vegetation while monitoring the growth of deserts.

However, most telescopes currently used to search for exoplanets aren’t ready for this type of search.

Using this technique at scale would require an off-axis telescope with a large and high contrast, like the currently under-construction Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby ExtraTerrestrial Systems (PLANETS). Once completed in January 2018, PLANETS will be demonstrate technology for the much larger planned Colossus Telescope.

The research was sponsored by the Breakthrough Initiatives and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in an attempt to serach for distant worlds that could support life.

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