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First ‘Alien Earth’ Will Be Found in 2013, Experts Say

Mike Wall, SPACE

The first truly Earth-like alien planet is likely to be spotted next year, an epic discovery that would cause humanity to reassess its place in the universe.

While astronomers have found a number of exoplanets over the last few years that share one or two key traits with our own world — such as size or inferred surface temperature — they have yet to bag a bona fide “alien Earth.” But that should change in 2013, scientists say.

“I’m very positive that the first Earth twin will be discovered next year,” said Abel Mendez, who runs the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.

First 'Alien Earth' Will Be Found in 2013, Experts Say

Planets piling up

Astronomers discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a sunlike star in 1995. Since they, they’ve spotted more than 800 worlds beyond our own solar system, and many more candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations. [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]

NASA’s prolific Kepler Space Telescope, for example, has flagged more than 2,300 potential planets since its March 2009 launch. Only 100 or so have been confirmed to date, but mission scientists estimate that at least 80 percent will end up being the real deal.

The first exoplanet finds were scorching-hot Jupiter-like worlds that orbit close to their parent stars, because they were the easiest to detect. But over time, new instruments came online and planet hunters honed their techniques, enabling the discovery of smaller and more distantly orbiting planets — places more like Earth.

Last December, for instance, Kepler found a planet 2.4 times larger than Earth orbiting in its star’s habitable zone — that just-right range of distances where liquid water, and perhaps life as we know it, can exist.

The Kepler team and other research groups have detected several other worlds like that one (which is known as Kepler-22b), bringing the current tally of potentially habitable exoplanets to nine by Mendez’ reckoning.

Habitable Zones for Different Stars
Habitable zones for different stars. An intelligent civilization could allow a planet outside the zone to still be habitable. CREDIT: NASA

Zeroing in on Earth’s twin

None of the worlds in Mendez’ Habitable Exoplanets Catalog are small enough to be true Earth twins. The handful of Earth-size planets spotted to date all orbit too close to their stars to be suitable for life. [Gallery: 9 Potentially Habitable Exoplanets]

But it’s only a matter of time before a small, rocky planet is spotted in the habitable zone — and Mendez isn’t the only researcher who thinks that time is coming soon.

“The first planet with a measured size, orbit and incident stellar flux that is suitable for life is likely to be announced in 2013,” said Geoff Marcy, a veteran planet hunter at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Kepler team.

Mendez and Marcy both think this watershed find will be made by Kepler, which spots planets by flagging the telltale brightness dips caused when they pass in front of their parent stars from the instrument’s perspective.

Kepler needs to witness three of these”transits” to detect a planet, so its early discoveries were tilted toward close-orbiting worlds (which transit more frequently). But over time, the telescope has been spotting more and more distantly orbiting planets — including some in the habitable zone.

An instrument called HARPS (short for High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) is also a top contender, having already spotted a number of potentially habitable worlds. HARPS, which sits on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope in Chile, allows researchers to detect the tiny gravitational wobbles that orbiting planets induce in their parent stars.

“HARPS should be able to find the most interesting and closer Earth twins,” Mendez told via email, noting that many Kepler planets are too far away to characterize in detail. “A combination of its sensitivity and long-term observations is now paying off.”

And there are probably many alien Earths out there to be found in our Milky Way galaxy, researchers say.

“Estimating carefully, there are 200 billion stars that host at least 50 billion planets, if not more,” Mikko Tuomi, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, told via email.

“Assuming that 1:10,000 are similar to the Earth would give us 5,000,000 such planets,” added Tuomi, who led teams reporting the discovery of several potentially habitable planet candidates this year, including an exoplanet orbiting the star Tau Ceti just 11.9 light-years from Earth. “So I would say we are talking about at least thousands of such planets.”

What it would mean

Whenever the first Earth twin is confirmed, the discovery will likely have a profound effect on humanity.

“We humans will look up into the night sky, much as we gaze across a large ocean,” Marcy told via email. “We will know that the cosmic ocean contains islands and continents by the billions, able to support both primitive life and entire civilizations.”

Marcy hopes such a find will prod our species to take its first real steps beyond its native solar system.

“Humanity will close its collective eyes, and set sail for Alpha Centauri,” Marcy said, referring to the closest star system to our own, where an Earth-size planet was discovered earlier this year.

“The small steps for humanity will be a giant leap for our species. Sending robotic probes to the nearest stars will constitute the greatest adventure we Homo sapiens have ever attempted,” Marcy added. “This massive undertaking will require the cooperation and contribution from all major nations around world. In so doing, we will take our first tentative steps into the cosmic ocean and enhance our shared sense of purpose on this terrestrial shore.”



Giant telescope will join the search for alien life

The world’s largest radio telescope is about to start operating after several years of testing.

Giant telescope will join the search for alien life

Known as the Five Hundred Meter Spherical Opening Telescope (FAST), the new observatory, located in southern China, has a diameter of 500 meters and cost $ 180 billion to build.

Its testing and commissioning phase began in 2016 and is now almost complete.

It’s scientific goals include studying pulsars, detecting interstellar molecules, conducting a large-scale neutral hydrogen survey, and finding evidence of extraterrestrial communications.

Given that FAST is already three times more sensitive than the observatory Arecibo in Puerto Rico, it should be very interesting, indeed, to see what, if anything, it can capture.

Zhu Ming, director of the observation and scientific division of FAST’s operations and development center, said:

In the process of observing signals from celestial bodies, we also collect signals that may be emitted by humans or extraterrestrial intelligence.

However, it is a huge amount of work, as most of the signals we see – 99% of them – are various noises. Therefore, we need to take time to identify the signals we want within the noise.


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How much water is there on Mars and is there enough for future colonists?

For many centuries, man dreamed of conquering the Red Planet, and it seems that in the very near future we will finally be able to take our first step in obtaining an interplanetary view. In order to be able to successfully land on Mars, NASA experts plan to first identify the most suitable place for the landing of future colonists. The main criterion in strict selection will be the presence of ice water, without which the existence of a person in the distant cold desert of a reddish hue would become completely impossible. So where should the first people land on the Red Planet and how much water is on Mars?

Mars and its most suitable zone for the construction of the first human colony outside the Earth

Is there a lot of water on Mars?

According to an article published on the portal, huge reserves of ice water on Mars can be located only at a depth of 2.5 centimeters from the surface. Its presence will be a key factor in choosing a potential landing site, because such important water resources of the planet will be one of the basic necessities for replenishing the colony’s drinking water reserves and making rocket fuel.

In order to find accessible ice water on Mars, NASA uses data from two spacecrafts at once – NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey Orbiter. According to the latest data received from the probes, future colonists will not even require the use of excavators and other heavy equipment to extract the vital resource, which can significantly reduce the cost of the course of the future mission.

Map of water ice on Mars

Blue shades show the closest water sources to the surface, red shades show the most distant ones. Black spots are sandy deserts, and the white area can be an ideal candidate for the landing of the first astronauts.

Due to the fact that liquid water cannot exist for a long time in a rarefied Mars atmosphere, almost instantly evaporating into outer space, scientists have yet to develop a technology that can allow water production without loss. The exact location of the ice can be detected using two heat-sensitive instruments – the Martian climate probe MRO and the thermal imaging camera system (THEMIS), designed specifically for Mars Odyssey.

Although there are a large number of places of interest for scientists on Mars, only a few of them are able to provide suitable landing sites for astronauts. So, despite the fact that the middle and southern latitudes of Mars receive more sunlight than its more northern regions, planetologists believe that the most preferred place for landing on Mars will be the Arcadia Planitia region, where water ice reserves are located only 30 centimeters under the surface of the planet.

Researchers believe that at present, the total water resources of the Red Planet are approximately 65 million cubic kilometers, which could well be enough to cover the surface of Mars with a layer of 35 meters thick water. Well, perhaps, future Martian colonists are unlikely to have to worry about the fact that the water on the Red Planet will someday end.

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The Interstellar Research Initiative plans to send people to the exoplanet of Proxima Centauri b

In an attempt to protect humanity from extinction in the event of some kind of global catastrophe of a planetary scale, a group of scientists announced a bold plan for the colonization of a distant exoplanet.

Proxima Centauri b

Scientists from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies said they were considering sending people to a potentially inhabited exoplanet in another stellar system.

The most promising option they consider, Proxima Centauri b, which is 4.24 light years away from Earth, which means the journey will take centuries or even millennia. This suggests that generations will succeed each other during the journey.

Technically, this is possible.

However, the challenges facing the mission are so numerous and complex that it can take decades to prepare.

“From the point of view of physics, there are no fundamental obstacles. There are many nuances, but this is not a violation of the fundamental laws of physics, ”said Andreas Hein, Executive Director of Initiative for Interstellar Studies.

No problem.

The main problem is the lack of experience being far beyond the Earth for such a period of time.

Even a flight to Mars, which will last about 6-8 months, raises a lot of questions.

Proxima Centauri b

There is no reliable protection against merciless radiation yet. Medical problems caused by a prolonged stay in space are still poorly understood. Other than that, there is no guarantee that Proxima Centauri b is indeed liveable.

Can you imagine what a setup would be if people born on a spaceship for one purpose would come to a planet absolutely unsuitable for settlement …

However, the authors of the project do not plan to curtail the program and continue to work actively in this direction.

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