A New Tool Has Been Developed In The Search For Extraterrestrial Life: A Methane Sniffer

Caption: Is there methane on this planet Image: ESA (European Space Agency)

A powerful and more accurate way to detect life on planets outside of the solar system has been developed.

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

Researchers from University College London and the University of New South Wales developed a new spectrum for hot methane which can be used to detect the molecule at temperatures above that of Earth, up to 1220°C.

To find out what remote planets orbiting other stars are made of, astronomers analyse the way atmospheres absorb starlight of different colours and compare it to a model, or spectrum, to identify different molecules.

Professor Jonathan Tennyson, of University College London, said: “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 study, published in PNAS, describes how the researchers used advanced supercomputers to calculate nearly 10 billion spectroscopic lines, each with a distinct colour at which methane can absorb light.

The new list of lines is 2,000 times bigger than any previous study, which means it can give more accurate information across a broader range of temperatures than was previously possible.

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.

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