UK to lead planetary life mission
Sun, 27 Feb 2011 15:40:28 GMT
British scientists are set to lead an important mission to search for signs of life on planets orbiting nearby stars.
Astronomers will use a new 1.2-meter space telescope to look for biomarkers in the atmospheres of exoplanets, reported The Independent.
Molecules of chemicals such as ozone, carbon dioxide and methane may indicate the presence of life.
Scientists at University College London (UCL) are leading the £400 million Exoplanet Characterization Observatory (EChO) mission, which is backed by the European Space Agency (ESA).
"This is tremendously exciting news,” said planetary scientist Dr Giovanna Tinetti, who heads the UCL team.
"One of the key aims of our mission is to see if we can detect molecules such as ozone and carbon dioxide in the atmospheres of planets not much bigger than Earth,” Dr. Tinetti added.
"These molecules are key biomarkers - signs that life might be, or might have been, present," the researcher added.
EChO will focus partly on Earth-sized planets in the "habitable zone" of Sun-like stars.
Also known as the "Goldilocks zone," this is the orbital region where conditions are not too hot and not too cold but "just right" to allow the existence of liquid surface water.
Most experts agree that liquid water is a pre-requisite for life as we know it.
Hotter stars will have a habitable zone further out than the one in which the Earth orbits the Sun. Planets around cooler stars have to be closer in to occupy the habitable zone.