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New method could detect alien life, scientists claim

June 17, 2014
Courtesy of UCL
and World Science staff

Scientists say they have de­vel­oped a pow­er­ful new mod­el to de­tect life on plan­ets out­side of our so­lar sys­tem, more ac­cu­rately than ev­er be­fore.

The new mod­el fo­cus­es on meth­ane, the sim­plest or­gan­ic mol­e­cule, widely ac­knowl­edged to be a sign of po­ten­tial life. 

Re­search­ers from Uni­vers­ity Col­lege Lon­don in the U.K. and the Uni­vers­ity of New South Wales in Aus­tral­ia de­vel­oped a new meth­od to de­tect the mol­e­cule at tem­per­a­tures above that of Earth, up to 1220 de­grees Cel­si­us, some­thing not pos­si­ble be­fore.

Artist's conception, courtesy of UCL


To find out what re­mote plan­ets or­bit­ing oth­er stars are made of, as­tro­no­mers an­a­lyze the way in which their at­mo­spheres ab­sorb star­light of dif­fer­ent col­ors. They then com­pare that to a mod­el, or “spec­trum,” to iden­ti­fy dif­fer­ent mol­e­cules.

“Cur­rent mod­els of meth­ane are in­com­plete, lead­ing to a sev­ere un­der­es­tima­t­ion of meth­ane lev­els on plan­ets,” said Jon­a­than Ten­ny­son, a phys­i­cist at Uni­vers­ity Col­lege Lon­don. “We an­ti­cipate our new mod­el will have a big im­pact on the fu­ture study of plan­ets and ‘cool’ stars ex­ter­nal to our so­lar sys­tem, po­ten­tially help­ing sci­en­tists iden­ti­fy signs of ex­tra­ter­res­tri­al life.”

“The com­pre­hen­sive spec­trum we have cre­at­ed has only been pos­si­ble with the as­ton­ish­ing pow­er of mod­ern su­per­com­put­ers which are needed for the bil­lions of lines re­quired for the mod­eling,” added the stu­dy’s lead au­thor, Sergei Yurchenko, al­so of the uni­vers­ity.

“We lim­it­ed the tem­per­a­ture thresh­old,” he added, “to fit the ca­pa­city avail­a­ble, so more re­search could be done to ex­pand the mod­el to high­er tem­per­a­tures still. Our cal­cula­t­ions re­quired about three mil­lion CPU (cen­tral pro­cess­ing un­it) hours alone,” he said.

“We are thrilled to have used this tech­nol­o­gy to sig­nif­i­cantly ad­vance be­yond pre­vi­ous mod­els avail­a­ble for re­search­ers stu­dying po­ten­tial life on as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­jects, and we are ea­ger to see what our new spec­trum helps them dis­cov­er.”

The mod­el has been tested and ver­i­fied by re­pro­duc­ing the way meth­ane in failed stars, called brown dwarfs, ab­sorbs light, the re­search­ers added. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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Researchers they have developed a powerful new model to detect life on planets outside of our solar system, more accurately than ever before. The new model focuses on methane, the simplest organic molecule, widely acknowledged to be a sign of potential life. Researchers from University College London in the U.K. and the University of New South Wales in Australia developed a new method to detect the molecule at temperatures above that of Earth, up to 1220 degrees Celsius, something not possible before. To find out what remote planets orbiting other stars are made of, astronomers analyze the way in which their atmospheres absorb starlight of different colors. They then compare that to a model, or “spectrum,” to identify different molecules. “Current models of methane are incomplete, leading to a severe underestimation of methane levels on planets,” said Jonathan Tennyson, a physicist at University College London. “We anticipate our new model will have a big impact on the future study of planets and ‘cool’ stars external to our solar system, potentially helping scientists identify signs of extraterrestrial life.” “The comprehensive spectrum we have created has only been possible with the astonishing power of modern supercomputers which are needed for the billions of lines required for the modeling,” added the study’s lead author, Sergei Yurchenko, also of the university. “We limited the temperature threshold to 1,500K to fit the capacity available, so more research could be done to expand the model to higher temperatures still. Our calculations required about three million CPU (central processing unit) hours alone,” he added. “We are thrilled to have used this technology to significantly advance beyond previous models available for researchers studying potential life on astronomical objects, and we are eager to see what our new spectrum helps them discover.” The new model has been tested and verified by successfully reproducing in detail the way in which the methane in failed stars, called brown dwarfs, absorbs light, the researchers added.