A top Swiss astrophysicist has shared his optimism that extraterrestrial life could be found beyond our Solar System within 25 years. This isn’t just fanciful thinking, he believes it’s a matter of probability, our flourishing understanding of exoplanets, and the incredible telescopes that are set to roll out this decade.
Sasha Quanz, Professor of Astrophysics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, set out his vision during an opening ceremony of the university’s new Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life.
"My goal is to find life outside the Solar System and, yes, it's going to be a big challenge. I have 25 years to do just that... but let me walk you through it and explain why I think this is not unrealistic," Professor Quanz told the crowd.
He went on to explain that the mission started in 1995 when the first planet outside our Solar System – Dimidium – was discovered. In the short time since then, over 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered and we’re finding new ones almost every day.
"Statistically, each star hosts a planet and a lot of these planets have sizes similar to Earth. Very many of them are separated from the star where the energy they receive from the star is very similar to what the Earth receives from the sun,” Quanz says.
However, it’s still hard to tell whether these planets have atmospheres and could support life as we know it.
Professor Quanz argues that a major breakthrough could come from the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Once operational toward the end of this decade, the ELT will wield a 39-meter (130-foot-wide) primary mirror, which Quanz notes is significantly bigger than the JWST.
"The primary goal of the instrument is to take the first picture of a terrestrial planet [outside our Solar System], potentially similar to Earth, around one of the very nearest stars," he added.
Eventually, they hope to image dozens of exoplanets and gain an understanding of their atmospheres. Once a promising candidate has been identified, a mission from the European Space Agency could do the rest of the work, he suggested.
This will likely involve looking at the composition of exoplanets' atmospheres and assessing whether they have been altered by living organisms, just like how biological life changes our atmosphere on Earth.
Working together with other disciplines, Quanz argues that the search for life beyond the Solar System could prove successful in just 25 years.
"Finally, I believe ultimately working together will allow us to empirically assess if some of the terrestrial planets out there show indications of biological activity outside the Solar System within the next 25 years,” he concluded.