Excitement about exoplanets skyrocketed when rocky Earth-like planets were discovered orbiting in the habitable zone of some of our closest stars – until hopes for life were dashed by the high levels of radiation bombarding those worlds.
In August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of an exoplanet in the neighboring system of Proxima Centauri. The news was greeted with consider excitement, as this was the closest rocky planet to our Solar System that also orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if this planet could actually support life.
Looking to the future, NASA and other space agencies have high hopes for the field of extra-solar planet research. In the past decade, the number of known exoplanets has reached just shy of 4000, and many more are expected to be found once next-generations telescopes are put into service. And with so many exoplanets to study, research goals have slowly shifted away from the process of discovery and towards characterization.
Are we alone in the universe? This question has been with us for thousands of years, but it is only now that science is on the cusp of providing a real answer. We now know of dozens of rocky planets orbiting stars other than our sun where, for all we know, life might exist. And soon, with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, we will have the first chance to peer into the atmospheres of some of these worlds.
In the last decade we have discovered thousands of planets outside our solar system and have learned that rocky, temperate worlds are numerous in our galaxy. The next step will involve asking even bigger questions. Could some of these planets host life? And if so, will we be able to recognize life elsewhere if we see it?
A simple chemistry method could vastly enhance how scientists search for signs of life on other planets. The test uses a liquid-based technique known as capillary electrophoresis to separate a mixture of organic molecules into its components. It was designed specifically to analyze for amino acids, the structural building blocks of all life on Earth