Europe is building a deep-space observatory to search for alien life and potentially habitable planets in other star systems, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced Wednesday.
The Planetary Transits and Oscillations Observatory (PLATO) will search for exo-planets revolving around distant stars in the hopes of finding alien life or a habitable world. The observatory will scan deep space with 26 on-board telescopes, looking for slight decreases in the amount of starlight that occur when a planet passes in front of its star.
PLATO’s low-end cost estimates are $668 million, but the cost could rise to $1.1 billion.
“The PLATO mission will address fundamental questions such as ‘how common are Earth-like planets?’ and ‘is our solar system unusual or even unique?’,” according to a press statement from the University of Warwick, whose scientists will take part in the project. The extremely expensive undertaking “could eventually even lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life.”
The ESA expects to launch PLATO in 2026, but the projects could be delayed. The observatory is Europe’s own version of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which launched in 2009.
The Kepler telescope has identified 2,335 planets outside of our solar system. Thirty of those planets have been verified as rocky Earth-like planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” where conditions are just right for liquid water to exist. The presence of liquid water means that a planet could potentially develop life, or one day host a human colony.
NASA announced the discovery of three other potentially habitable planets in a single solar system relatively close to Earth in February.
Scientists were even able to estimate the size and density of the planets. Researchers are currently using the Hubble Space Telescope to determine if these planets have an atmosphere. One of the potentially inhabitable planets, dubbed TRAPPIST-1E, is very similar in size to Earth and likely has very similar temperatures. Another called TRAPPIST-1F is potentially covered in water.
It would take roughly 39 years to travel to these planets at light speed.
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