What is a Generation Ship?

The dream of traveling to another star and planting the seed of humanity on a distant planet… It is no exaggeration to say that it has captivated the imaginations of human beings for centuries. With the birth of modern astronomy and the Space Age, scientific proposals have even been made as to how it could be done. But of course, living in a relativistic Universe presents many challenges for which there are no simple solutions.

Of these challenges, one of the greatest has to do with the sheer amount of energy necessary to get humans to another star within their own lifetimes. Hence why some proponents of interstellar travel recommend sending spacecraft that are essentially miniaturized worlds that can accommodate travelers for centuries or longer. These “Generation Ships” (aka. worldships or Interstellar Arks) are spacecraft that are built for the truly long haul.

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Giant Planets Could Form Around Tiny Stars in Just a Few Thousand Years

M-type (red dwarf) stars are cooler, low-mass, low-luminosity objects that make up the vast majority of stars in our Universe – accounting for 85% of stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. In recent years, these stars have proven to be a treasure trove for exoplanet hunters, with multiple terrestrial (aka. Earth-like) planets confirmed around the Solar System’s nearest red dwarfs.

But what is even more surprising is the fact that some red dwarfs have been found to have planets that are comparable in size and mass to Jupiter orbiting them. A new study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has addressed the mystery of how this could be happening. In essence, their work shows that gas giants only take a few thousand years to form.

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New Instrument is Searching for Planets Around Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to us, at 4.37 light-years (about 25 trillion miles) away. In 2016, astronomers discovered an exoplanet orbiting one of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. Spurred on by that discovery, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has developed a new instrument to find any other planets that might be in the Alpha Centauri system, and it’s busy looking right now.

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The Closest Star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, has a Planet in the Habitable Zone. Life Could be There Right Now

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.

Unfortunately, most of the research so far has indicated that the likelihood of habitability are not good. Between Proxima Centauri’s variability and the planet being tidally-locked with its star, life would have a hard time surviving there. However, using lifeforms from early Earth as an example, a new study conducted by researchers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) has shows how life could have a fighting chance on Proxima b after all.

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Super Earth Planet Found Around One of the Closest Stars to us. But it’s Probably a Terrible Place to Live

In the course of searching for extra-solar planets, some very interesting finds have been made. Some of them have even occurred within our own galactic neighborhood. Just two years ago, astronomers from the Red Dots and CARMENES campaigns announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet that orbits within the habitable zone of our nearest stellar neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

This rocky world, which may be habitable, remains the closest exoplanet ever discovered to our Solar System. A few days ago (on Nov. 14th), Red Dots and CARMENES announced another find: a rocky planet orbiting Barnard’s star, which is just 6 light years from Earth. This planet, Barnard’s Star b, is now the second closest exoplanet to our Solar System, and the closest planet to orbit a single star.

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The Closest Planet Ever Discovered Outside the Solar System Could be Habitable With a Dayside Ocean

In of August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our Solar System. In addition, they confirmed that this planet (Proxima b) orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if Proxima b could in fact be habitable.

Unfortunately, most of this research has not been very encouraging. For instance, many studies have indicated that Proxima b’s sun experiences too much flare activity for the planet to sustain an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface.  However, in a new NASA-led study, a team of scientists has investigated various climate scenarios that indicate that Proxima b could still have enough water to support life.

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What’s the Minimum Number of People you Should Send in a Generational Ship to Proxima Centauri?

Humanity has long dreamed about sending humans to other planets, even before crewed spaceflight became a reality. And with the discovery of thousands of exoplanets in recent decades, particularly those that orbit within neighboring star systems (like Proxima b), that dream seems closer than ever to becoming a reality. But of course, a lot of technical challenges need to be overcome before we can hope to mount such a mission.

In addition, a lot of questions need to be answered. For example, what kind of ship should we send to Proxima b or other nearby exoplanets? And how many people would we need to place aboard that ship? The latter question was the subject of a recent paper written by a team of French researchers who calculated the minimal number of people that would be needed in order to ensure that a healthy multi-generational crew could make the journey to Proxima b.

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Chandra Observatory Checks to Make Sure Alpha Centauri is Safe, You Know, in Case We Decide to Visit

At distance of just 4.367 light years, the triple star system of Alpha Centauri (Alpha Centauri A+B and Proxima Centauri) is the closest star system to our own. In 2016, researchers from the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of Proxima b, a rocky planet located within the star’s habitable zone and the closest exoplanet to our Solar System. However, whether or not Alpha Centauri has any potentially habitable planets remains a mystery.

Between 2012 and 2015, three possible candidates were announced in this system, but follow-up studies cast doubt on their existence. Looking to resolve this mystery, Tom Ayres – a senior research associate and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy – conducted a study of Alpha Centauri based on over a decade’s worth of observations, with encouraging results!

The results of this study were presented at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which took place in Denver, Colorado, from June 3rd to June 7th. The study was based on ten years worth of monitoring of Alpha Centauri, which was provided the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This data indicated that any planets that orbit Alpha Centauri A and B are not likely to be bombarded by large amounts of X-ray radiation.

The two brightest stars of the Centaurus constellation – (left) Alpha Centauri and (right) Beta Centauri. The faint red star in the center of the red circle is Proxima Centauri. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Skatebiker

This is good news as far as Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability goes since X-rays and related Space Weather effects are harmful to unprotected life. Not only can high doses of radiation be lethal to living creatures, they can also strip away planetary atmospheres. According to data provided by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, this  is precisely what happened to Mars between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago.

As Tom Ayres explained in a recent Chandra press release:

“Because it is relatively close, the Alpha Centauri system is seen by many as the best candidate to explore for signs of life. The question is, will we find planets in an environment conducive to life as we know it?”

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system (A and B) are quite similar to our Sun and orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Centauri A, a G2 V (yellow dwarf) star, is the most Sun-like of the two, being 1.1 times the mass and 1.519 times the luminosity of the Sun. Alpha Centauri B is somewhat smaller and cooler, at 0.907 times the Sun’s mass and 0.445 times its visual luminosity.

As such, the odds that the system could support an Earth-like planet are pretty good, especially around Alpha Centauri A. According to the Chandra data, the prospects for life (based on X-ray bombardment) are actually better for any planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A than for the Sun, and Alpha Centauri B is only slightly worse. This is certainly good news for those who are hoping that a potentially habitable exoplanet is found in close proximity to the Solar System.

The respective habitable zones around Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory

When the existence of Proxima b was first announced, there was naturally much excitement. Not only did this planet orbit within it’s star’s habitable zone, but it was the closest known exoplanet to Earth. Subsequent studies, however, revealed that Proxima Centauri is variable and unstable by nature, which makes it unlikely that Proxima b could maintain an atmosphere or life on its surface. As Ayers explained:

“This is very good news for Alpha Cen AB in terms of the ability of possible life on any of their planets to survive radiation bouts from the stars. Chandra shows us that life should have a fighting chance on planets around either of these stars.”

Meanwhile, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B, but without success. The problem with this system is the orbit of the pair, which has drawn the two bright stars close together in the sky over the past decade. To help determine if Alpha Centauri was hospitable to life, astronomers began conducting a long-term observation campaign with Chandra in 2005.

As the only X-ray observatory capable of resolving Alpha Centauri A and B during its current close orbital approach, Chandra observed these two main stars every six months for the past thirteen years. These long-term measurements captured a full cycle of increases and decreases in X-ray activity, in much the same way that the Sun has an 11-year sunspot cycle.

What these observations showed was that any planet orbiting within the habitable zone of A would receive (on average) a lower dose of X-rays compared to similar planets around the Sun. For planets orbiting withing the habitable zone of B, the X-ray dose they received would be about five times higher. Meanwhile, planets orbiting within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone would get an average of 500 times more X-rays, and 50,000 times more during a big flare.

In addition to providing encouraging hints about Alpha Centauri’s possible habitability, the X-ray observations provided by Chandra could also go a long way towards informing astronomers about our Sun’s X-ray activity. Understanding this is key to learning more about space weather and the threat they can pose to human infrastructure, as well as other technologically-advanced civilizations.

In the meantime, astronomers continue to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri A and B. Knowing that they have a good chance of supporting life will certainly make any future exploration of this system (like Project Starshot) all the more lucrative!

Some of the study’s results also appeared in the January issue in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society, titled “Alpha Centauri Beyond the Crossroads“. And be sure to enjoy this video about Alpha Centauri’s potential habitability, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory

The DARKNESS Instrument Will Block Stars and Reveal Their Planets. 100 Million Times Fainter than the Star

The hunt for planets beyond our Solar System has led to the discovery of thousands of candidates in the past few decades. Most of these have been gas giants that range in size from being Super-Jupiters to Neptune-sized planets. However, several have also been determined to be “Earth-like” in nature, meaning that they are rocky and orbit within their stars’ respective habitable zones.

Unfortunately, determining what conditions might be like on their surfaces is difficult, since astronomers are unable to study these planets directly. Luckily, an international team led by UC Santa Barbara physicist Benjamin Mazin has developed a new instrument known as DARKNESS. This superconducting camera, which is the world’s largest and most sophisticated, will allow astronomers to detect planets around nearby stars.

The team’s study which details their instrument, titled “DARKNESS: A Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detector Integral Field Spectrograph for High-contrast Astronomy“, recently appeared in the Publications of the Astronomy Society of the Pacific. The team was led by Benjamin Mazin, the Worster Chair in Experimental Physics at UCSB, and also includes members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Institute of Technology, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and multiple universities.

The DARKNESS instrument is the worlds most advanced camera and will enable the detection of planets around the nearest stars. Credit: UCSB

Essentially, it is extremely difficult for scientists to study exoplanets directly because of the interference caused by their stars. As Mazin explained in a recent UCSB press release, “Taking a picture of an exoplanet is extremely challenging because the star is much brighter than the planet, and the planet is very close to the star.” As such, astronomers are often unable to analyze the light being reflected off of a planet’s atmosphere to determine its composition.

These studies would help place additional constraints on whether or not a planet is potentially habitable. At present, scientists are forced to determine if a planet could support life based on its size, mass, and distance from its star. In addition, studies have been conducted that have determined whether or not water exists on a planet’s surface based on how its atmosphere loses hydrogen to space.

The DARK-speckle Near-infrared Energy-resolved Superconducting Spectrophotometer (aka. DARKNESS), the first 10,000-pixel integral field spectrograph, seeks to correct this. In conjunction with a large telescope and adaptive optics, it uses Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors to quickly measure the light coming from a distant star, then sends a signal back to a rubber mirror that can form into a new shape 2,000 times a second.

MKIDs allow astronomers to determine the energy and arrival time of individual photons, which is important when it comes to distinguishing a planet from scattered or refracted light. This process also eliminates read noise and dark current – the primary sources of error in other instruments – and cleans up the atmospheric distortion by suppressing the starlight.

UCSB physicist Ben Mazin, who led the development of the DARKNESS camera. Credit: Sonia Fernandez

Mazin and his colleagues have been exploring MKIDs technology for years through the Mazin Lab, which is part of the UCSB’s Department of Physics. As Mazin explained:

“This technology will lower the contrast floor so that we can detect fainter planets. We hope to approach the photon noise limit, which will give us contrast ratios close to 10-8, allowing us to see planets 100 million times fainter than the star. At those contrast levels, we can see some planets in reflected light, which opens up a whole new domain of planets to explore. The really exciting thing is that this is a technology pathfinder for the next generation of telescopes.”

DARKNESS is now operational on the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, where it is part of the PALM-3000 extreme adaptive optics system and the Stellar Double Coronagraph. During the past year and a half, the team has conducted four runs with the DARKNESS camera to test its contrast ratio and make sure it is working properly.

In May, the team will return to gather more data on nearby planets and demonstrate their progress. If all goes well, DARKNESS will become the first of many cameras designed to image planets around nearby M-type (red dwarf) stars, where many rocky planets have been discovered in recent years. The most notable example is Proxima b, which orbits the nearest star system to our own (Proxima Centauri, roughly 4.25 light years away).

The Palomar Observatory, where the DARKNESS camera is currently installed. Credit: IPTF/Palomar Observatory

“Our hope is that one day we will be able to build an instrument for the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii or La Palma,” Mazin said. “With that, we’ll be able to take pictures of planets in the habitable zones of nearby low mass stars and look for life in their atmospheres. That’s the long-term goal and this is an important step toward that.”

In addition to the study of nearby rocky planets, this technology will also allow astronomers to study pulsars in greater detail and determine the redshift of billions of galaxies, allowing for more accurate measurements of how fast the Universe is expanding. This, in turn, will allow for more detailed studies of how our Universe has evolved over time and the role played by Dark Energy.

These and other technologies, such as NASA’s proposed Starshade spacecraft and Stanford’s mDot occulter, will revolutionize exoplanet studies in the coming years. Paired with next-generation telescopes – such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which recently launched – astronomers will not only be able to discover more in the way exoplanets, but will be able to characterize them like never before.

Further Reading: UC Santa BarbaraPublications of the Astronomy Society of the Pacific

The Challenges of an Alien Spaceflight Program: Escaping Super Earths and Red Dwarf Stars

In a series of papers, Professor Loeb and Michael Hippke indicate that conventional rockets would have a hard time escaping from certain kinds of extra-solar planets. Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

Since the beginning of the Space Age, humans have relied on chemical rockets to get into space. While this method is certainly effective, it is also very expensive and requires a considerable amount of resources. As we look to more efficient means of getting out into space, one has to wonder if similarly-advanced species on other planets (where conditions would be different) would rely on similar methods.

Harvard Professor Abraham Loeb and Michael Hippke, an independent researcher affiliated with the Sonneberg Observatory, both addressed this question in two recentlyreleased papers. Whereas Prof. Loeb looks at the challenges extra-terrestrials would face launching rockets from Proxima b, Hippke considers whether aliens living on a Super-Earth would be able to get into space.

The papers, tiled “Interstellar Escape from Proxima b is Barely Possible with Chemical Rockets” and “Spaceflight from Super-Earths is difficult” recently appeared online, and were authored by Prof. Loeb and Hippke, respectively. Whereas Loeb addresses the challenges of chemical rockets escaping Proxima b, Hippke considers whether or not the same rockets would able to achieve escape velocity at all.

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of his study, Loeb considered how we humans are fortunate enough to live on a planet that is well-suited for space launches. Essentially, if a rocket is to escape from the Earth’s surface and reach space, it needs to achieve an escape velocity of 11.186 km/s (40,270 km/h; 25,020 mph). Similarly, the escape velocity needed to get away from the location of the Earth around the Sun is about 42 km/s (151,200 km/h; 93,951 mph).

As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email:

“Chemical propulsion requires a fuel mass that grows exponentially with terminal speed. By a fortunate coincidence the escape speed from the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is at the limit of attainable speed by chemical rockets. But the habitable zone around fainter stars is closer in, making it much more challenging for chemical rockets to escape from the deeper gravitational pit there.”

As Loeb indicates in his essay, the escape speed scales as the square root of the stellar mass over the distance from the star, which implies that the escape speed from the habitable zone scales inversely with stellar mass to the power of one quarter. For planets like Earth, orbiting within the habitable zone of a G-type (yellow dwarf) star like our Sun, this works out quite while.

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: Pale Red Dot

Unfortunately, this does not work well for terrestrial planets that orbit lower-mass M-type (red dwarf) stars. These stars are the most common type in the Universe, accounting for 75% of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. In addition, recent exoplanet surveys have discovered a plethora of rocky planets orbiting red dwarf stars systems, with some scientists venturing that they are the most likely place to find potentially-habitable rocky planets.

Using the nearest star to our own as an example (Proxima Centauri), Loeb explains how a rocket using chemical propellant would have a much harder time achieving escape velocity from a planet located within it’s habitable zone.

“The nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is an example for a faint star with only 12% of the mass of the Sun,” he said. “A couple of years ago, it was discovered that this star has an Earth-size planet, Proxima b, in its habitable zone, which is 20 times closer than the separation of the Earth from the Sun. At that location, the escape speed is 50% larger than from the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. A civilization on Proxima b will find it difficult to escape from their location to interstellar space with chemical rockets.”

Hippke’s paper, on the other hand, begins by considering that Earth may in fact not be the most habitable type of planet in our Universe. For instance, planets that are more massive than Earth would have higher surface gravity, which means they would be able to hold onto a thicker atmosphere, which would provide greater shielding against harmful cosmic rays and solar radiation.

Artists impression of a Super-Earth, a class of planet that has many times the mass of Earth, but less than a Uranus or Neptune-sized planet. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

In addition, a planet with higher gravity would have a flatter topography, resulting in archipelagos instead of continents and shallower oceans – an ideal situation where biodiversity is concerned. However, when it comes to rocket launches, increased surface gravity would also mean a higher escape velocity. As Hippke indicated in his study:

“Rockets suffer from the Tsiolkovsky (1903) equation : if a rocket carries its own fuel, the ratio of total rocket mass versus final velocity is an exponential function, making high speeds (or heavy payloads) increasingly expensive.”

For comparison, Hippke uses Kepler-20 b, a Super-Earth located 950 light years away that is 1.6 times Earth’s radius and 9.7 times it mass. Whereas escape velocity from Earth is roughly 11 km/s, a rocket attempting to leave a Super-Earth similar to Kepler-20 b would need to achieve an escape velocity of ~27.1 km/s. As a result, a single-stage rocket on Kepler-20 b would have to burn 104 times as much fuel as a rocket on Earth to get into orbit.

To put it into perspective, Hippke considers specific payloads being launched from Earth. “To lift a more useful payload of 6.2 t as required for the James Webb Space Telescope on Kepler-20 b, the fuel mass would increase to 55,000 t, about the mass of the largest ocean battleships,” he writes. “For a classical Apollo moon mission (45 t), the rocket would need to be considerably larger, ~400,000 t.”

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

While Hippke’s analysis concludes that chemical rockets would still allow for escape velocities on Super-Earths up to 10 Earth masses, the amount of propellant needed makes this method impractical. As Hippke pointed out, this could have a serious effect on an alien civilization’s development.

“I am surprised to see how close we as humans are to end up on a planet which is still reasonably lightweight to conduct space flight,” he said. “Other civilizations, if they exist, might not be as lucky. On more massive planets, space flight would be exponentially more expensive. Such civilizations would not have satellite TV, a moon mission, or a Hubble Space Telescope. This should alter their way of development in certain ways we can now analyze in more detail.”

Both of these papers present some clear implications when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). For starters, it means that civilizations on planets that orbit red dwarf stars or Super-Earths are less likely to be space-faring, which would make detecting them more difficult. It also indicates that when it comes to the kinds of propulsion humanity is familiar with, we may be in the minority.

“This above results imply that chemical propulsion has a limited utility, so it would make sense to search for signals associated with lightsails or nuclear engines, especially near dwarf stars,” said Loeb. “But there are also interesting implications for the future of our own civilization.”

Artist’s concept of a bimodal nuclear rocket making the journey to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the Solar System. Credit: NASA

“One consequence of the paper is for space colonization and SETI,” added Hippke. “Civs from Super-Earths are much less likely to explore the stars. Instead, they would be (to some extent) “arrested” on their home planet, and e.g. make more use of lasers or radio telescopes for interstellar communication instead of sending probes or spaceships.”

However, both Loeb and Hippke also note that extra-terrestrial civilizations could address these challenges by adopting other methods of propulsion. In the end, chemical propulsion may be something that few technologically-advanced species would adopt because it is simply not practical for them. As Loeb explained:

“An advanced extraterrestrial civilization could use other propulsion methods, such as nuclear engines or lightsails which are not constrained by the same limitations as chemical propulsion and can reach speeds as high as a tenth of the speed of light. Our civilization is currently developing these alternative propulsion technologies but these efforts are still at their infancy.”

One such example is Breakthrough Starshot, which is currently being developed by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation (of which Loeb is the chair of the Advisory Committee). This initiative aims to use a laser-driven lightsail to accelerate a nanocraft up to speeds of 20% the speed of light, which will allow it to travel to Proxima Centauri in just 20 years time.

Artist’s impression of rocky exoplanets orbiting Gliese 832, a red dwarf star just 16 light-years from Earth. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

Hippke similarly considers nuclear rockets as a viable possibility, since increased surface gravity would also mean that space elevators would be impractical. Loeb also indicated that the limitations imposed by planets around low mass stars could have repercussions for when humans try to colonize the known Universe:

“When the sun will heat up enough to boil all water off the face of the Earth, we could relocate to a new home by then. Some of the most desirable destinations would be systems of multiple planets around low mass stars, such as the nearby dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 which weighs 9% of a solar mass and hosts seven Earth-size planets. Once we get to the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1, however, there would be no rush to escape. Such stars burn hydrogen so slowly that they could keep us warm for ten trillion years, about a thousand times longer than the lifetime of the sun.”

But in the meantime, we can rest easy in the knowledge that we live on a habitable planet around a yellow dwarf star, which affords us not only life, but the ability to get out into space and explore. As always, when it comes to searching for signs of extra-terrestrial life in our Universe, we humans are forced to take the “low hanging fruit approach”.

Basically, the only planet we know of that supports life is Earth, and the only means of space exploration we know how to look for are the ones we ourselves have tried and tested. As a result, we are somewhat limited when it comes to looking for biosignatures (i.e. planets with liquid water, oxygen and nitrogen atmospheres, etc.) or technosignatures (i.e. radio transmissions, chemical rockets, etc.).

As our understanding of what conditions life can emerge under increases, and our own technology advances, we’ll have more to be on the lookout for. And hopefully, despite the additional challenges it may be facing, extra-terrestrial life will be looking for us!

Professor Loeb’s essay was also recently published in Scientific American.

Further Reading: arXiv, arXiv (2), Scientific American