'We will find ET'

2014-03-24 10:00
Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell has warned that conservatism may threaten the progress made in science and technology. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell has warned that conservatism may threaten the progress made in science and technology. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - The fact that new technologies are helping astronomers find more extrasolar planets means that it's just a matter of time before extraterrestrial life is found, a top astronomer has said.

"If you go outside; dark sky, you can see about 6 000 stars. You need to say to yourself 'There's 6 000 planets up there,'" Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell told News24.

Burnell discovered pulsars as a student in 1967, but her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish shared the Noble prize in 1974 for the discovery.

In the 1960s, few scientists would have argued that extrasolar planets existed and the discoveries such pulsars indicated that the universe held many secrets.

The fist exoplanet was discovered in 1992 and in 2008, planet 1RXS J160929.1-210524 b orbiting a star was directly observed. Planets have been detected around brown dwarfs, multiple star systems and even without a host star.


Astronomers now believe that stars with planets are perhaps the rule rather than the exception.

"Perhaps the most starling thing in astronomy in the last 10 years is the number of stars out there that have planets. And we're not yet finding all of them because our kit isn't yet good enough," said Burnell.

The SKA (Square Kilometre Array) including its pathfinder instrument, the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope), will exponentially increase our ability to detect stars with planets.

One of the challenges in finding extraterrestrial life is the presence of water on a planet. Astronomers are cautious in saying that life may not form exclusively where there is water, but Earth experience suggests that water may facilitate the production of life.

Experts believe that the best chance for life may be found on a planet that orbits its star in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" - neither too hot nor too cold where water is present in liquid form.

"At the moment, because of the limitations on kit we haven't found that many planets that are at the right distance from their star for water to be liquid. If water is icy, you probably don't get life; if water is steam, you probably don't get life," Burnell said.

The Kepler space telescope discovered 1 235 possible planets in 2011, of which 54 were in the Goldilocks zone.


Planet Gliese 581g, about 20 light years from the Earth, is thought to be the first exoplanet discovered just the right distance from its host star to have liquid water, and is a good candidate for life.

"People who work in the field say that within a century - within a 100 years - we will have evidence for life on some of those planets. Now it's doesn't mean it's intelligent life; it might be simple microbial life," said Burnell.

She said that a study of a planet's atmosphere may also produce results that may indicate the presence of life.

"They're getting to the stage where they can study atmospheres of those planets and there are various signatures in atmospheres which shows that there's life down below the atmosphere."

By detecting for the presence of gases like methane and oxygen, astronomers could give a reasonable guess for the presence of life - but it would still be life as we define it on Earth.

However, Burnell warned that humans may not be ready to accept extraterrestrial life, particularly if it turned out to be intelligent life.

"I'm not sure that we're ready for that, to be honest. I think a number of people will have trouble with it - and if it's intelligent life, we really ought to be sitting down as a global community to consider how do we approach it; them."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    ska  |  astronomy

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