The search for Earth-like planets has intensified as astronomers continue to look for potential life on other worlds.
Now one of the leading exoplanet hunters is being recognized for his contributions to science.
On Tuesday, Harvard University astronomy professor David Charbonneau was honored as one of three winners of the 2016 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists for his methods of discovering exoplanets.
The honor comes after NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, a mission Charbonneau has participated in, discovered more than 1,284 planets in May, doubling the number of planets previously confirmed by the probe.
The importance of exoplanets
The recent exoplanet findings reveal that worlds smaller than Earth are pretty common in our galaxy, contrary to what scientists originally believed.
Since the discovery of thousands of exoplanets — worlds that orbit a star outside of our solar system — Charbonneau explained that we need to start looking for chemical signatures that may indicate life in these “Goldilocks” exoplanets located in habitable zones.
“By studying alien worlds, we may find the first direct evidence of life beyond Earth, a sign that our living planet is, yet again, one among many,” Charbonneau told CNN.
The main characteristics Charbonneau and other astronomers are looking for in these exoplanets are liquid water and atmospheric oxygen, ingredients that are essential for supporting life.
Since traveling to these exoplanets is impossible — it’s beyond our current technology — how do we figure out which worlds have oxygen or liquid water?
The answer is telescopes, Charbonneau said.
Two large telescopes could help us narrow our search for life soon, Charbonneau said. The Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile will be one of the biggest telescopes to focus its sight on analyzing exoplanets, and NASA is launching the James Webb space telescope in 2018, which is essentially like a giant version of the Hubble telescope. It will be able to look at exoplanets clearly without the interference of our atmosphere.
Is something really out there?
Scientists at the SETI Institute have been listening for signals from space for decades.
And obviously, we haven’t made contact with aliens yet. Some astronomers argue that if there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe, it will take at least 1,500 years to make contact because of the vastness of space.
But that isn’t discouraging Charbonneau.
The life he’s searching for isn’t the science fiction kind we’ve seen in movies and literature.
“We are talking about life that changes the planet,” he said. “If you were look at the solar system, you would see something is really different about the third planet. You would see a lot of oxygen. And you know oxygen is very reactive, and that would be surprising. We’re looking for those chemical signatures.”
Charbonneau said he’s open minded about the possibility that life exists somewhere in space.
“I am ready for the possibility. But I’m also open to the possibility that life is a rare occurrence,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t life in the universe, but maybe not in a nearby star.”