Messier 73 – the NGC 6994 Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the star cluster known as Messier 73.

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is Messier 73, a four star asterism located approximately 2,500 light-years from Earth. It is visible in the southern part of the Aquarius constellation, near the border of Capricornus and just southeast of Messier 72. Given that Aquarius and Capricornus are relatively faint constellations, this object is one of the more challenging Messier objects to find in the night sky. Continue reading “Messier 73 – the NGC 6994 Star Cluster”

Messier 72 – the NGC 6981 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the globular cluster known as Messier 72.

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is Messier 72, a globular cluster about 54,570 light years away in the direction of the Aquarius constellation. Originally discovered by French astronomer Pierre Méchain a few years prior, Messier would go on to include this star cluster in his catalog. Located in close proximity to Messier 73, this globular cluster is one of the smaller and fainter Messier objects in the night sky. Continue reading “Messier 72 – the NGC 6981 Globular Cluster”

Messier 71 – the NGC 6838 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the unusual globular cluster known as Messier 71.

If you look up into the night sky, on a particularly clear night when there’s not a lot of bright lights nearby, you may be able to make out a series of faint objects. Similar to the Milky Way, that cloudy, ghostly band that reaches across the night sky, these small pockets of fuzzy light are in fact collections of stars located thousands of light years away.

Continue reading “Messier 71 – the NGC 6838 Globular Cluster”

Messier 70 – the NGC 6681 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the globular cluster known as Messier 70.

In the late 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier spent much of his time looking up at the night sky in search of comets. Over time, he discovered 100 fixed, diffuse objects that resembled comets, but were something else entirely. Messier compiled a list of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. What resulted was the Messier Catalog, one of the influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of the objects he catalogued is Messier 70 (aka.  NGC 6681), a globular cluster located 29,300 light years away from Earth and close to the Galactic Center. It’s location within the asterism known as the “Tea Pot” (which is part of the northern Sagittarius constellation). It is also in close proximity to both the M54 and M69 globular clusters. Continue reading “Messier 70 – the NGC 6681 Globular Cluster”

Messier 69 – the NGC 6637 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the globular cluster known as Messier 69.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is known as Messier 69 (NGC 6637), a globular cluster located in the constellation Sagittarius. Located about about 29,700 light-years away from Earth, this cluster lies close to Messier 70 (both of which were discovered Charles Messier on August 31st, 1780). Both objects lie close to the galactic center, and M69 is one of the most metal-rich globular clusters known. Continue reading “Messier 69 – the NGC 6637 Globular Cluster”

Messier 68 – the NGC 4590 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the globular cluster known as Messier 68.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the globular cluster known as Messier 68. Located roughly 33,000 light-years away in the Constellation of Hydra, this cluster is orbiting through the Milky. In addition to being one of the most metal-poor globular clusters, it may be undergoing core collapse, and is believed to have been acquired from a satellite galaxy that merged with the Milky Way in the past. Continue reading “Messier 68 – the NGC 4590 Globular Cluster”

Farewell Kepler. Welcome TESS

At 6:51 EDT on Wednesday, April 18th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. It was carrying NASA’s TESS: the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. From what we can tell, the mission went without a hitch, with the first stage returning to land on its floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean, and stage 2 carrying on to send TESS into its final orbit.

Continue reading “Farewell Kepler. Welcome TESS”

Messier 67 – the King Cobra Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the big snake – the King Cobra Cluster (aka. Messier 67).

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the open star cluster known as Messier 67, aka. the King Cobra Cluster. Located in the Cancer Constellation, and with age estimates ranging from 3.2 and 5 billion years, this cluster is one of the oldest clusters known. And at a distance of roughly 2610 and 2930 (800 – 900 pc) from Earth, it is the closest of any of the older open star clusters. Continue reading “Messier 67 – the King Cobra Open Star Cluster”

Messier 66 – the NGC 3627 Intermediate Spiral Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the intermediate spiral galaxy known as Messier 66.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the intermediate elliptical galaxy known as Messier 66 (NGC 3627). Located about 36 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Leo constellation, this galaxy measures 95,000 light-years in diameter. It is also the brightest and largest member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies and is well-known for its bright star clusters, dust lanes, and associated supernovae.

Description:

Enjoying life some 35 million light years from the Milky Way, the group known as the “Leo Trio” is home to bright galaxy Messier 66 – the easternmost of the two M objects. In the telescope or binoculars, you’ll find this barred spiral galaxy far more visible and much easier to see details within its knotted arms and bulging core.

Hubble image of the intermediate spiral galaxy Messier 66. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration/Davide De Martin/Robert Gendler

Because of interaction with its neighboring galaxies, M66 shows signs of a extremely high central mass concentration as well as a resolved noncorotating clump of H I material apparently removed from one of the spiral arms. Even one of its spiral arms got it noted in Halton Arp’s collection of Peculiar Galaxies! So exactly what did it collide with?As   Xiaolei Zhang (et al) indicated in a 1993 study:

“The combined CO and H I data provide new information, both on the history of the past encounter of NGC 3627 with its companion galaxy NGC 3628 and on the subsequent dynamical evolution of NGC 3627 as a result of this tidal interaction. In particular, the morphological and kinematic information indicates that the gravitational torque experienced by NGC 3627 during the close encounter triggered a sequence of dynamical processes, including the formation of prominent spiral structures, the central concentration of both the stellar and gas mass, the formation of two widely separated and outwardly located inner Lindblad resonances, and the formation of a gaseous bar inside the inner resonance. These processes in coordination allow the continuous and efficient radial mass accretion across the entire galactic disk. The observational result in the current work provides a detailed picture of a nearby interacting galaxy which is very likely in the process of evolving into a nuclear active galaxy. It also suggests one of the possible mechanisms for the formation of successive instabilities in postinteraction galaxies, which could very efficiently channel the interstellar medium into the center of the galaxy to fuel nuclear starburst and Seyfert activities.”

Ah, yes! Star forming regions… And what better way to look deeper than through the eyes of the Spitzer Space Telescope? As R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team observed:

“M66’s blue core and bar-like structure illustrates a concentration of older stars. While the bar seems devoid of star formation, the bar ends are bright red and actively forming stars. A barred spiral offers an exquisite laboratory for star formation because it contains many different environments with varying levels of star-formation activity, e.g., nucleus, rings, bar, the bar ends and spiral arms. The SINGS image is a four-channel false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.”

Colour composite image of the spiral galaxy M66 (or NGC 3627) obtained with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments (at VLT MELIPAL and YEPUN, respectively). Credit: ESO

Messier 66 has also been deeply studied for evidence of forming super star clusters, too. As David Meier indicated:

“Super star clusters are thought to be precursors of globular clusters and are some of the most extreme star formation regions in the universe. They tend to occur in actively starbursting galaxies or near the cores of less active galaxies. Radio super star clusters cannot be seen in optical light because of extreme extinction, but they shine brightly in infrared and radio observations. We can be certain that there are many massive O stars in these regions because massive stars are required to provide the UV radiation that ionizes the gas and creates a thermally bright HII regions. Not many natal SSCs are currently known, so detection is an important science goal in its own right. In particular, very few SSCs are known in galactic disks. We need more detections to be able to make statistical statements about SSCs and fill in the mass range of forming star clusters. With more detections, we will be able to investigate the effects of other environments (e.g. bars, bubbles, and galactic interaction) on SSCs, which could potentially be followed up in the far future with the Square Kilometer Array to discover their effects on individual forming massive stars.”

But there’s still more. Try magnetic properties in M66’s spiral patterns. As M. Soida (et al) indicated in their 2001 study:

“By observing the interacting galaxy NGC 3627 in radio polarization we try to answer the question; to which degree does the magnetic field follow the galactic gas flow. We obtained total power and polarized intensity maps at 8.46 GHz and 4.85 GHz using the VLA in its compact D-configuration. In order to overcome the zero-spacing problems, the interferometric data were combined with single-dish measurements obtained with the Effelsberg 100-m radio telescope. The observed magnetic field structure in NGC 3627 suggests that two field components are superposed. One component smoothly fills the interarm space and shows up also in the outermost disk regions, the other component follows a symmetric S-shaped structure. In the western disk the latter component is well aligned with an optical dust lane, following a bend which is possibly caused by external interactions. However, in the SE disk the magnetic field crosses a heavy dust lane segment, apparently being insensitive to strong density-wave effects. We suggest that the magnetic field is decoupled from the gas by high turbulent diffusion, in agreement with the large Hi line width in this region. We discuss in detail the possible influence of compression effects and non-axisymmetric gas flows on the general magnetic field asymmetries in NGC 3627. On the basis of the Faraday rotation distribution we also suggest the existence of a large ionized halo around this galaxy.”

History of Observation:

Both M65 and M66 were discovered on the same night – March 1, 1780 – by Charles Messier, who described M66 as, “Nebula discovered in Leo; its light is very faint and it is very close to the preceding: They both appear in the same field in the refractor. The comet of 1773 and 1774 has passed between these two nebulae on November 1 to 2, 1773. M. Messier didn’t see them at that time, no doubt, because of the light of the comet.”

Both galaxies would be observed and cataloged by the Herschel family and further expounded upon by Admiral Smyth:

“A large elongated nebula, with a bright nucleus, on the Lion’s haunch, trending np [north preceding, NW] and sf [south following, SE]; this beautiful specimen of perspective lies just 3deg south-east of Theta Leonis. It is preceded at about 73s by another of a similar shape, which is Messier’s No. 65, and both are in the field at the same time, under a moderate power, together with several stars. They were pointed out by Mechain to Messier in 1780, and they appeared faint and hazy to him. The above is their appearance in my instrument.

“These inconceivably vast creations are followed, exactly on the same parallel, ar Delta AR=174s, by another elliptical nebula of even a more stupendous character as to apparent dimensions. It was discovered by H. [John Herschel], in sweeping, and is No. 875 in his Catalogue of 1830 [actually, probably an erroneous position for re-observed M66]. The two preceding of these singular objects were examined by Sir William Herschel, and his son [JH] also; and the latter says, “The general form of elongated nebulae is elliptic, and their condensation towards the centre is almost invariably such as would arise from the superposition of luminous elliptic strata, increasing in density towards the centre. In many cases the increase of density is obviously attended with a diminution of ellipticity, or a nearer approach to the globular form in the central than in the exterior strata.” He then supposes the general constitution of those nebulae to be that of oblate spheroidal masses of every degree of flatness from the sphere to the disk, and of every variety in respect of the law of their density, and ellipticity towards the centre. This must appear startling and paradoxical to those who imagine that the forms of these systems are maintained by forces identical with those which determine the form of a fluid mass in rotation; because, if the nebulae be only clusters of discrete stars, as in the greater number of cases there is every reason to believe them to be, no pressure can propagate through them. Consequently, since no general rotation of such a system as one mass can be supposed, Sir John suggests a scheme which he shows is not, under certain conditions, inconsistent with the law of gravitation. “It must rather be conceived,” he tells us, ” as a quiescent form, comprising within its limits an indefinite magnitude of individual constituents, which, for aught we can tell, may be moving one among the other, each animated by its own inherent projectile force, and deflected into an orbit more or less complicated, by the influence of that law of internal gravitation which may result from the compounded attractions of all its parts.”

Messier 66 location. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 66:

Even though you might think by its apparent visual magnitude that M66 wouldn’t be visible in small binoculars, you’d be wrong. Surprisingly enough, thanks to its large size and high surface brightness, this particular galaxy is very easy to spot directly between Iota and Theta Leonis. In even 5X30 binoculars under good conditions you’ll easy see both it and M65 as two distinct gray ovals.

A small telescope will begin to bring out structure in both of these bright and wonderful galaxies, but to get a hint at the “Trio” you’ll need at least 6″ in aperture and a good dark night. If you don’t spot them right away in binoculars, don’t be disappointed – this means you probably don’t have good sky conditions and try again on a more transparent night. The pair is well suited to modestly moonlit nights with larger telescopes.

May you equally be attracted to this galactic pair!

And here are the quick facts on M66 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 66
Alternative Designations: M66, NGC 3627, (a member of the) Leo Trio, Leo Triplet
Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Leo
Right Ascension: 11 : 20.2 (h:m)
Declination: +12 : 59 (deg:m)
Distance: 35000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.9 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 8×2.5 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Sources:

What’ll It Take to Find Life? Searching the Universe for Biosignatures

An artist's interpretation of HD 189733. It looks nice and blue, but it's actually a nightmare world that could be raining glass with 2 km/s winds. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser


The supertelescopes are coming, enormous ground and space-based observatories that’ll let us directly observe the atmospheres of distant worlds. We know there’s life on Earth, and our atmosphere tells the tale, so can we do the same thing with extrasolar planets? It turns out, coming up with a single biosignature, a chemical in the atmosphere that tells you that yes, absolutely, there’s life on that world, is really tough.

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been pretty bad for this in the past. In old episodes of Astronomy Cast and the Weekly Space Hangout, even here in the Guide to Space, I’ve said that if we could just sample the atmosphere of a distant world, we could say with conviction if there’s life there.

Just detect ozone in the atmosphere, or methane, or even pollution and you could say, “there’s life there.” Well, future Fraser is here to correct past Fraser. While I admire his naive enthusiasm for the search for aliens, it turns out, as always, things are going to be more difficult than we previously thought.

Astrobiologists are actually struggling to figure out a single smoking gun biosignature that could be used to say there’s life out there. And that’s because natural processes seem to have clever ways of fooling us.

What are some potential biosignatures, why are they problematic, and what will it take to get that confirmation?

Let’s start with a world close to home: Mars.

For almost two decades, astronomers have detected large clouds of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Here on Earth, methane comes from living creatures, like bacteria and farting cows. Furthermore, methane is easily broken down by sunlight, which means that this isn’t ancient methane leftover from billions of years ago. Some process on Mars is constant replenishing it.

But what?

Well, in addition to life, methane can form naturally through volcanism, when rocks interact with heated water.

NASA tried to get to the bottom of this question with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and it was expected that Curiosity should have the tools on board to find the source of the methane.

Panoramic image of the Curiosity rover, from September 2016. The pale outline of Aeolis Mons can be seen in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Panoramic image of the Curiosity rover, from September 2016. The pale outline of Aeolis Mons can be seen in the distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Over the course of several months, Curiosity did detect a boost of methane down there on the surface, but even that has led to a controversy. It turns out the rover itself was carrying methane, and could have contaminated the area around itself. Perhaps the methane it detected came from itself. It’s also possible that a rocky meteorite fell nearby and released some gas that contaminated the results.

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission arrived at Mars in October, 2016. Although the Schiaparelli Lander was destroyed, the Trace Gas Orbiter survived the journey and began mapping the atmosphere of Mars in great detail, searching for places that could be venting methane, and so far, we don’t have conclusive results.

In other words, we’ve got a fleet of orbiters and landers at Mars, equipped with instruments designed to sniff out the faintest whiff of methane on Mars.

Artist’s impression visualising the separation of the ExoMars entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Credit: ESA

There’s some really intriguing hints about how the methane levels on Mars seem to rise and fall with the seasons, indicating life, but astrobiologists still don’t agree.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and all that.

Some telescopes can already measure the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. For the last decade, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has been mapping out the atmospheres of various worlds. For example, here’s a map of the hot jupiter HD 189733b

Spitzer temperature map of HD 189733b (NASA)
Spitzer temperature map of HD 189733b (NASA)
. The place sucks, but wow, to measure an atmosphere, of another planet, that’s pretty spectacular.

They perform this feat by measuring the chemicals of the star while the planet is passing in front of it, and then measure it when there’s no planet. That tells you what chemicals the planet is bringing to the party.

They also were able to measure the atmosphere of HAT-P-26b, which is a relatively small Neptune-sized world orbiting a nearby star, and were surprised to find water vapor in the atmosphere of the planet.

Does that mean there’s life? Wherever we find water on Earth we find life. Nope, you can totally get water without having life.

When it launches in 2019, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is going to take this atmospheric sensing to the next level, allowing astronomers to study the atmospheres of many more worlds with a much higher resolution.

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the first targets for Webb will be the TRAPPIST-1 system with its half-dozen planets orbiting in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star. Webb should be able to detect ozone, methane, and other potential biosignatures for life.

So what will it take to be able to view a distant world and know for sure there’s life there.

Astrobiologist John Lee Grenfell from the German Aerospace Centre recently created a report, going through all the exoplanetary biosignatures that could be out there, and reviewed them for how likely they were to be an indication of life on another world.

The first target will be molecular oxygen, or O2. You’re breathing it right now. Well, 21% of every breath, anyway. Oxygen will last in the atmosphere of another world for thousands of years without a source.

It’s produced here on Earth by photosynthesis, but if a world is being battered by its star, and losing atmosphere, then the hydrogen is blown off into space, and molecular oxygen can remain. In other words, you can’t be certain either way.

How about ozone, aka O3? O2 is converted into O3 through a chemical process in the atmosphere. It sounds like a good candidate, but the problem is that there are natural processes that can produce ozone too. There’s an ozone layer on Venus, one on Mars, and they’ve even been detected around icy moons in the Solar System.

There’s nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. It’s produced as an output by bacteria in the soil, and helps contribute to the Earth’s nitrogen cycle. And there’s good news, Earth seems to be the only world in the Solar System that has nitrous oxide in its atmosphere.

But scientists have also developed models for how this chemical could have been generated in the Earth’s early history when its sulfur-rich ocean interacted with nitrogen on the planet. In fact, both Venus and Mars could have gone through a similar cycle.

In other words, you might be seeing life, or you might be seeing a young planet.

Ligeia Mare, shown in here in data obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, is the second largest known body of liquid on Saturn’s moon Titan. It is filled with liquid hydrocarbons, such as ethane and methane, and is one of the many seas and lakes that bejewel Titan’s north polar region. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Then there’s methane, the chemical we spent so much time talking about. And as I mentioned, there’s methane produced by life here on Earth, but it’s also on Mars, and there are liquid oceans of methane on Titan.

Astrobiologists have suggested other hydrocarbons, like ethane, isoprene, but these have their own problems too.

What about the pollutants emitted by advanced civilizations? Astrobiologists call these “technosignatures”, and they could include things like chlorofluorocarbons, or nuclear fallout. But again, these chemicals would be hard to detect light years away.

Astronomers have suggested that we should search for dead earths, just to set a baseline. These would be worlds located in the habitable zone, but clearly life never got going. Just rock, water and a non-biologically created atmosphere.

The problem is that we probably can’t even figure out a way to confirm that a world is dead either. The kinds of chemicals you’d expect to see in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide could be absorbed by oceans, so you can’t even make a negative confirmation.

One method might not even involve scanning atmospheres at all. The vegetation here on Earth reflects back a very specific wavelength of light in the 700-750 nanometer region. Astrobiologists call this the “red edge”, because you’ll see a 5X increase in reflectivity compared to other surfaces.

Although we don’t have the telescopes to do this today, there are some really clever ideas, like looking at how the light from a planet reflects onto a nearby moon, and analyze that. Searching for exoplanet earthshine.

In fact, back in the Earth’s early history, it would have looked more purple because of Archaean bacteria.

There’s a whole fleet of spacecraft and ground observatories coming online that’ll help us push further into this question.

ESA’s Gaia mission is going to map and characterize 1% of the stars in the Milky Way, telling us what kinds of stars are out there, as well as detect thousands of planets for further observation.

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT
A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
Image Credit: MIT

The Transiting Exoplanet Space Survey, or TESS, launches in 2018, and will find all the transiting Earth-sized and larger exoplanets in our neighborhood.

The PLATO 2 mission will find rocky worlds in the habitable zone, and James Webb will be able to study their atmospheres. We also talked about the massive LUVOIR telescope that could come online in the 2030s, and take these observations to the next level.

And there are many more space and ground-based observatories in the works.

As this next round of telescopes comes online, the ones capable of directly measuring the atmosphere of an Earth-sized world orbiting another star, astrobiologists are going to struggling to find a biosignature that provides a clear sign there’s life there.

Instead of certainty, it looks like we’re going to have the same struggle to make sense of what we’re seeing. Astronomers will be disagreeing with each other, developing new techniques and new instruments to answer unsolved questions.

It’s going to take a while, and the uncertainty is going to be tough to handle. But remember, this is probably the most important scientific question that anyone can ask: are we alone in the Universe?

The answer is worth waiting for.

Source: John Lee Grenfell: A Review of Exoplanetary Biosignatures.

Hat tip to Dr. Kimberly Cartier for directing me to this paper. Follow her work on EOS Magazine.