Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Goldilocks Zone: The Search for Earth Like Planets

 When looking at the cosmos astronomers are not only discovering multitudes of gas giants winking out their parent stars, they have also discovered many extradinary solar systems from the extremely exotic to simple and small.Recent finds include planets with double suns, massive "super-Earths" and "hot Jupiters," and a miniature solar system.As the numbers mount, it seems to be just a matter of time before Kepler finds what astronomers are really looking for: an Earth-like planet orbiting its star in the "Goldilocks zone" – that is, at just the right distance for liquid water and life.
This would be the jackpot in the search for extra terrestrial life.
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Kepler has already located a few Earth-sized planets, but they are too close for comfort to their parent stars. These recent finds have heightened the sense that a big discovery is just around the corner.
But finding a Goldilocks planet is just the first step. Getting to know it is much more difficult.
The problem is that, in the cosmic scheme of things, Earth-sized planets are relatively small, and the ones Kepler is finding are staggeringly far away. Most are hundreds, or even thousands, of light years away from Earth. Almost completely hidden by the glare of their parent stars, these distant pinpricks are very difficult to study.
One new mission under consideration by NASA, named FINESSE, is a fingerprint specialist. Short for "Fast INfrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer," FINESSE would measure the spectra of stars and their planets in two situations: once when the planet is in view, and again when the planet is hiding out behind its star. In this way, FINESSE can separate the planet's dim light from the stellar glare and reveal the composition of the planet's atmosphere.

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