A Swiss astrophysicist has predicted humanity is on the verge of discovering extraterrestrial life, adding that new technologies could help allow the breakthrough to occur within 25 years. Sascha Quanz, an astrophysicist at Switzerland’s federal technology institute ETH Zurich, remarked that the instruments currently being built around the world could pave the way to answering one of humanity’s biggest questions- are we alone in this universe?
Speaking a press briefing, he detailed the technology projects under development at his university, adding that over 5,000 exoplanets – or planets outside the solar system – have been discovered so far.
He said: “In 1995, my colleague [and Noble Prize laureate] Didier Queloz discovered the first planet outside our solar system. Today, more than 5,000 exoplanets are known and we are discovering them on a daily basis.”
There are reportedly to be billions of exoplanets that have not yet been discovered, particularly as astronomers believe that each of the 100 billion stars in the universe has at least one planet orbiting it.
According to Dr Quanz, this means that there are an enormous number of exoplanets waiting to be found, many of which are just like Earth, spinning at the right distance from their host stars to enable conditions for life, such as the presence of liquid water.
He said: “What we do not know is if these terrestrial planets have atmospheres and what these atmospheres are made of.
“We need to investigate the atmospheres of these planets. We need an observational approach that would allow us to take pictures of these planets.”
This speech came as NASA’s James Webb telescope (JWST) captured stunning images of a giant hot planet nearly 400 light-years away in a “transformative moment for astronomy”.
The spectacular picture captured by NASA’s £8.4billion telescope show a scorching hot planet six to 12 times bigger than Jupiter in what are the first images captured by the James Webb of an exoplanet.
READ MORE: NASA snaps stunning images of planet outside our solar system
Named HIP 65426 b, the gas giant is thought to be 15 million years old and more than 900°C on its surface.
The JWST was also able to catch a glimpse of the planet, which has been compared to a “candle flame”, as it is over 100 times further from its star than Earth is to the Sun.
Within just a few months of being unveiled, the telescope has already been instrumental in a string of breakthroughs in exoplanet research, including detecting carbon dioxide and water in the atmospheres of several of them.
Dr Quanz however warned that the JWST, currently the most powerful telescope ever deployed, is not yet powerful enough to detect the exoplanets that are similar Earth, that tend to be much smaller and orbits closer to their respective stars, so that water could be found in liquid form.
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He said: “[The HIP 65426] system is a very special system. It’s a gas giant planet orbiting very far from the star.
“This is what Webb can do in terms of taking pictures of planets. We will not be able to get to the small planets. Webb is not powerful enough to do that.”
However, new instruments are already being developed to fill the gaps left by the JWST, as Dr Quanz and his team are currently working on the mid-infrared ELT imager and spectrograph (METIS), which is a first-of-its-kind instrument that will be part of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).
Currently being built by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, ELT, once completed toward the end of this decade, will consist of a 130-foot-wide mirror, making it the largest optical telescope in the world.
Dr Quanz continued: “The primary goal of the instrument is to take the first picture of a terrestrial planet, potentially similar to Earth, around one of the very nearest stars.
“But our long-term vision is to do that not only for a few stars but for dozens of stars, and to investigate the atmospheres of dozens of terrestrial exoplanets.”