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.
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.