Thursday, December 27, 2007

Finding a Suitable Planet; What Would ET Do?


Thinkers at the University of Florida put themselves in ET's shoes to learn how to find Earth-like planets.
     Finding extra-solar planets and solar systems has become commonplace, but finding Earth-like planets that might support our version of humanity hasn't done so well. Of the 240-plus planets found outside our own system in the past twenty years, zero can be considered "Class M," as Mr. Spock would say. The solution to finding planets that could support Earth-like life forms? Ask what our friend ET would see if he happened to glimpse the Earth through telescopes of similar or slightly better design than ones currently fielded by earthlings.

A paper published by astronomers from the University of Florida, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Instituto de Astrofisca de Canarias in Spain gives us a little insight as to what we might need to look for in that single pixel the Earth would realize in a current-tech image. If observed over a period of months, the paper explains, enough data could be collected to infer the presence of not only water, but a dynamic atmosphere and stable land masses.

The basis of this is that though Earth's weather systems seem chaotic, over a period of time quantifiable observations can be made due to what we know about how weather systems normally work. For example, there is most often cloud cover over rain forests while arid areas, like deserts, are typically devoid thereof. If a pattern of brightness, probably created by liquids in one state or another, can be observed for long enough, earthlings or ET could very well establish the rotational period of an extra-solar Earth-like planet.

As most of the time, liquids are much more reflective than your average handful of dirt, rock or tree, it would be a more stable marker in such uses. The variable brightness in other areas would suggest cloud cover of some sort, and thus a working climatic system. Where you have a working climate and liquid water, it's quite possible for you to have life, or at least sustain it if none already exists.

To this effect, work is underway for a new 10-meter telescope in the Canary Islands as a joint effort between the University of Florida and he Instituto de Astrofisca de Canarias. The facility is scheduled to start operations in 2008. Eric Ford, UF assistant professor and one of the five co-authors of the paper says that zeroing in on Earth-like planets at even the closest stars would require a telescope at least twice the size of the Hubble Space Telescope.

We pause to consider the ramifications of such extra-solar planets being found. Even at our current level of technology, ion drives and all, the trip would probably take at least a lifetime to accomplish. This is probably a small price to pay for something like colonization. But examining other scenarios like the Doomed Earth Evacuation and the Earth First (we can strip mine the other planets later) corporate outlook are also interesting to theorize about.

Sci-fi has been doing it for decades, but breakthroughs in astronomy and space travel could make it more of a reality inside of this century. There is no doubt that we'll be touching down on Mars in the next 100 years, barring silliness like world-destroying wars. It's not hard to fathom sending out at least unmanned expeditions to newly discovered habitable planets.
Aliens Approaching Earth

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