Spectroscopy: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

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Throughout history humanity has been fascinated by the existence of extraterrestrial life. Today such ventures are in the development process and the discovery of life beyond our solar system, no matter how primitive, may soon become a huge(important?) scientific breakthrough. The three basic things that are required to consider a place even remotely habitable are water, a source of energy, and organic materials. Habitability also depends on other factors that must also be taken into consideration such as how close the planet is to its star (in the case of our solar system, the sun), how long the water and organic materials existed there, and the size and mass of the planet. One must not confuse habitable with inhabited. The term habitable suggests only that there is a possibility that life could exist, not necessarily that life was present or still is. For more than a decade the interest of searching for exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) that are Earth-like has grown.

At present, NASA’s Kepler mission is searching almost 170,000 stars for orbiting planets. (Astronomy, April 2011, p.31). Only recently have discoveries of exoplanets been confirmed, although astronomers have been searching for such planets for centuries. One method employed by astronomers for planetary discovery, that uses data collected by the Kepler spacecraft, is the transit method. A transiting planet is a planet that passes in front of its host star as seen from Earth. (Wolf, 2007) In essence, what is detected is a slight dimming in the host star’s light. Astronomers then determine whether the planet in the habitable zone of its star. The habitable zone (HZ) is the area around a star where it is possible for water to remain liquid on the surf...

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... expensive venture. What is possible now is to pinpoint the planets with the best odds in supporting life. For now, perhaps the best approach is to stay close to home and explore the planets in our solar system.

Works Cited

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Johnson, J. A. (2011, April). The stars that host planets. Sky & Telescope, 121(4), 22-27.

Field, T. (2011, August). Spectroscopy for everyone. Sky & Telescope, 122(2), 68-71.

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