New techniques for spotting previously hidden planets could reveal whether life exists outside – or not.
Australian scientists are part of a team that first used a radio antenna to find exoplanets, meaning planets outside our solar system.
Using the world’s most powerful antenna – a low-frequency array in the Netherlands (Lofar) – the team detected radio signals from 19 distant red dwarf stars.
Four of them emit signals indicating that planets are orbiting them.
Astrophysicist from the University of Queensland, Dr. Benjamin Pope, says that this discovery opens “radically new possibilities” for the study of exoplanets, which could be habitable.
The research was published Tuesday in Nature Astronomy, at the same time as another paper written by Pope that confirmed the data with an optical telescope.
The Pope said that the staff of the Australian scientific research agency CSIRO first started studying the sky with military radars during the Second World War. CSIRO then developed the Parkes Observatory – known as Dish.
Lofar is a prototype or “seeker” that is part of the development of a square kilometer field, which will be the world’s largest telescope based in Western Australia and South Africa. “Lofar is a mini version of what we can expect in the VA in five to 10 years,” Pope said.
The team is studying space using radio signals and has figured out how to block other objects, such as black holes and neutron stars, to focus on red dwarfs, using the same technology that gives us polarized sunglasses.
Lead author Joseph Callingham said the team is convinced that the signals come from a magnetic connection between stars and invisible planets in orbit.
“It’s a spectacle that caught our attention from a distance of light years,” he said.
The pope said that additional studies were needed, but that “the evidence excludes all other possibilities except that it is a star interacting with the planet.”
“We now have a new window in the sky thanks to the power of Lofar and techniques such as wearing polarized sunlight. This opens the realm of possibilities for the future, “he said.
So far, they have only seen a part of the sky with Lofar. When SKA goes online, “we will find hundreds and hundreds of these things,” Pope said.
As for the red dwarfs, the planets orbiting them often have Earth-like temperatures.
“So, we are looking for habitable planets as potential habitats for life. It’s not about finding Planet B that we could move to. It is about whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. This would be a profound discovery, “he said.
Pope, who is researching exoplanets, said it was likely that many of the planets orbiting the red dwarfs were pleasantly mild, but the radiation radiated them, making them uninhabitable.
But some could be in the so-called Goldilocks zone.
As for his own opinion, he does not think we are alone in space, but he carefully distinguishes between the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the search for evidence of any biological signature.
“I think there is life there. I would not be dealing with this business if I did not think that there is a realistic perspective for that “, he said, adding that he thinks that we will have an answer in any way at any time.