A Tiny Telescope Could Answer Humanity's Biggest Question

Thursday, 11 January 2018 - 11:20AM
Thursday, 11 January 2018 - 11:20AM
A Tiny Telescope Could Answer Humanity's Biggest Question
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2021 will see a momentous occasion as we continue to explore our galaxy. This is the year that the Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat (SPARCS) is scheduled to launch, at which point, we'll begin to gain a better understanding of just how habitable foreign stars might be for alien life.

SPARCS is not a big satellite—in fact, it's particularly small, about the size of a box of cereal. Nevertheless, the telescope within the satellite is going to be exceptionally useful, as it will enable scientists to look more closely at the solar activity around distant stars.

A lot of variables go into determining whether or not a planet is truly capable of sustaining life. Not only does a world need a temperate climate that's not too far or too close to its sun, but it also needs a star to orbit that is relatively calm.

If a star is prone to violent outbursts of solar radiation, then a potentially life-bearing world will quickly end up uninhabitable. Even our own planet is only really capable of sustaining life because the sun's periodic solar flares thankfully aren't all that troublesome. Even so, without our ozone layer, one big burst of solar energy would be all it would take to fry every single one of us.

It's important, then, to know what kinds of stars contain the right levels of radiation to allow for life to develop on an orbiting planet. Thus, scientists are going to use SPARCS to look at M dwarf stars, which are particularly cool and quiet—a lot less powerful than even our own modest home star.

The logic here is one of convenience: these kinds of stars are common throughout our area in the Milky Way, meaning that scientists will have plenty of data to draw from once SPARCS is up and running.

Yet in spite of their relatively low levels of heat and light, M dwarf stars are known for periodic volatile outbursts of radiation, which means that even if we find a planet in the so-called "Goldilocks zone" around such a star, we can't be certain that it'll actually be habitable until we know more about the frequency and strength of the M dwarf's solar tantrums.

This requires specialist equipment, as not all solar radiation can be seen with traditional camera lenses. According to Evgenya Shkolnik, assistant professor in SESE and principal investigator for the SPARCS mission:

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"People have been monitoring M dwarfs as best they can in visible light. But the stars' strongest flares occur mainly in the ultraviolet, which Earth's atmosphere mostly blocks."
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SPARCS will also manage to take a wide snapshot of a lot of stars in a relatively short time, which is more useful than Hubble's more detailed, slow, methodical approach to snapshotting the universe.

This tiny pint-sized telescope might just be the answer to finding alien life somewhere out in the universe. Even if SPARCS fails to find life itself, its insights into solar radiation on distant planets will likely help tremendously as we learn to identify which stars are capable of supporting life, and which are just too bombastic to be good neighbors.

Plus, in a few more years, we'll finally have a good method of spotting which worlds will make decent vacation spots once we start looking to set up our own interstellar holiday camps.