The Search for Earth’s Twin

In the hyper-connected world of today, it can be difficult to imagine exactly how disconnected from each other humans used to be. Most ancient societies had such little communication that in many cases people believed that they were alone on earth.  Despite this isolation, humanity continued to interact with nature by granting meaning to the natural forces they could not understand. From there, a connection formed among the estranged peoples. When each night fell, our ancestors would crane their necks toward the starry expanse and what they observed would reflect the deepest existential desires of their society. For the ancient Greeks, the stars formed silhouettes of glorious heroes and formidable monsters after their departure from the earth. In modern times, however, humanity has finally found truth in the stars with the knowledge that no matter how connected humanity is, the earth will always be isolated in an intergalactic context. Thus the cycle continues and modern astronomers look once more to the heavenly sphere above us to give a new meaning to the stars: another home.

Although the Earth has sustained humanity unbelievably well for centuries now, there are limits to its hospitality. The resources that its inhabitants enjoy are increasingly finite and the devastating toll of the ozone layer’s depletion has furthered earth’s exhaustion. Thus, astronomers across the globe have been working in anticipation of an extinction event that would render the earth uninhabitable, hunting for exoplanets or planets that exists outside the solar system. Scientists hope to discover a planet with the properties necessary to sustain human life in order create the next destination for humanity. Swiss astronomers discovered the first confirmed exoplanet in 1995. Since then, almost five thousand potential exoplanets have been located using a variety of different methods.

Exoplanets are extremely difficult to find in the vastness of space, but one of the main approaches to doing so is more obvious than one might think. Even a child with a nonexistent understanding of astronomy is able to associate stars with twinkling, because of the children’s song, twinkle twinkle little star. This seemingly trivial rhyme is actually representative of one of the most vital parts of exoplanet discovery: a star’s blink. The blinking of stars is significant, because it indicates an exoplanet orbiting around a host star, blocking the star’s light. The method of discovering stars in this fashion is called the transit method. The transit method allows for the radius of the exoplanet to be measured by subtracting the radius of blocked path of light from the original star’s measurements. Additionally, the transit method can be further evaluated to find the exoplanet’s atmospheric makeup using spectroscopy, or the study of the light energy radiated from the planet.


Figure of the transit method

The transit method was a very notable step in exoplanet discovery; however, the many different mathematical and observational tactics that can be used from the earth’s surface have not detected the bulk of the known exoplanets. Space observatory telescopes, namely the Kepler spacecraft, have contributed the majority of the our understanding of exoplanets. The Kepler mission, named after the revolutionary Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, is a heliocentrically oriented photometer with a satellite that sends data to earth containing the varying brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in the Cygnus, Lyra, and Draco constellations. Scientists then confirm seemingly fitting candidates obtained from the photometer’s data using follow-up tests.  The Kepler mission is humanity’s first attempt at utilizing space observatory telescopes. The mission has been unbelievably successful, continuing for more than two years after its planned three-year mission. But despite the mission’s overwhelming accomplishments, NASA and other space programs around the world have still failed to establish the next stage in the search for earth’s twin: a perfect system that would only locate planets with the framework for nourishing terrestrial life.


Cygnus and Lyra constellations

With the aid of a variety of different tactics, scientists hope to determine humanity’s place in the universe and change its potential calamitous fate by finding earth’s twin. In order to complete this massive undertaking, the most brilliant astronomers of this era find themselves in the same confused and helpless position of our primeval ancestors examining the stars. Although many different tactics have been used for exoplanet discovery, Earth’s twin is still lost in space. Therefore, until a replacement for our dying home can be located, exoplanet discovery will remain one of the most pursued issues in the astrophysics community.

Colette Juran, Staff Writer

Posted by on October 16, 2014. Filed under World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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