K2-18b: Scientist reveals exoplanet could harbour water
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Scientists from Cornell University in New York and the American Natural History Museum have unveiled today (June 23) more than 2,000 nearby star systems close enough for aliens to watch our planet. The star systems all sit within 326 light-years of our planet – a distance small enough for our Earth to enter their field of view when transitting the Sun. The researchers counted a total of 1,715 systems that may have already spotted our planet even before the rise of human civilisation 5,000 years ago.
And another 319 systems have been identified that will be added over the next 5,000 years.
The star systems were unveiled in a paper published on June 23 in the journal Nature.
According to the study’s authors, exoplanets racing around these stars are well-positioned to see whether life exists on Earth.
Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy and director of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute, said: “From the exoplanets’ point of view, we are the aliens.”
If alien life exists somewhere out there among the stars, it may be searching for other forms of life in the same way scientists do here on Earth.
One way organisations like NASA are on the hunt for habitable exoplanets is by searching for transiting worlds.
Transits occur when a planet passes between a star and its observer.
Scientists can then analyse the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere to determine whether it has any biomarkers of life.
Professor Kaltenegger said: “We wanted to know which stars have the right vantage point to see Earth as it blocks, the Sun’s light.
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“And because stars move in our dynamic cosmos, this vantage point is gained and lost.”
Missions like NASA’s TESS or the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, use the transit technique to detect thousands of candidate exoplanets beyond our solar system.
Professor Kaltenegger and her colleagues charted the nearby star systems using the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Gaia eDR3 catalogue.
The catalogue allowed them to determine which stars dip in and out of the Earth Transit Zone.
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Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist and senior scientists at the museum, said: “Gaia has provided us with a precise map of the Milky Way galaxy, allowing us to look backwards and forward in time, and to see where stars had been located and where they are going.”
The scientists identified a total of 2,034 star systems passing through this Earth Transit Zone over a 10,000 year period.
Of these systems, 117 objects were found within 100 light-years of our Sun.
Even more excitingly, 75 of these 117 bodies have seen the Earth transit since commercial radio zones began broadcasting signals into outer space.
Dr Faherty said: “Our solar neighbourhood is a dynamic place where stars enter and exit that perfect vantage point to see Earth transit the Sun at a rapid pace.”
The researchers have determined even the closest stars spend about 1,000 years in an advantageous position to see the Earth transit.
According to Professor Kaltenegger, if the reverse is true, it provides “a healthy timeline for nominal civilisations to identify Earth as an interesting planet”.
Dr Faherty added: “One might imagine that worlds beyond Earth that have already detected us, are making the same plans for our planet and solar system.
“This catalogue is an intriguing thought experiment for which one of our neighbours might be able to find us.”
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