Guillem Anglada-Escudé from Queen Mary University of London gave the keynote talk of the conference, discussing how he and his team were going to study the nearest red dwarfs for planets. We already know Proxima Centauri 4.2 light-years away plays host to at least one – Proxima b – and it may have more. Now, Anglada-Escudé and his team will shift their focus to Barnard’s Star 6 light-years away, and other nearby red dwarfs, as part of a new project called Red Dots to find nearby planets. We should know by the end of the year if there’s anything there.
“We want to get more science done, look for more planets,” Anglada-Escudé, who was recently named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, told IFLScience. “You never know what’s there until you look for it.”
Anglada-Escudé presents his research at Breakthrough Discuss. Jonathan O'Callaghan/IFLScience
Finding these planets is only the first part, though. A number of scientists are now investigating what techniques we can use to work out if they have any life on them. Direct imaging of the surfaces will be next to impossible, so instead we’ll need to examine the atmospheres of the planets by studying the light that comes through them from their host star.
Most of the work in this area focuses on a handful of molecules such as oxygen and methane, but in total there are 1,500 molecules that could be useful. Huge upcoming ground-based telescopes – known as Extremely Large Telescopes (ELTs) – like the upcoming Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii and the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile will help in this endeavor, as will NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
“I’m very excited about the planets around low mass stars,” Sir Martin Rees, the UK Astronomer Royal, told IFLScience. “And I think it’s very good to realize that the next-generation race to build giant ground-based telescopes is going to open up the possibility of getting real spectroscopic data on the nearest planets.”
The field has changed dramatically in just a few years. In 2009, when NASA launched its Kepler Telescope, we still weren’t sure how common planets were around other stars. Now we know of thousands, and we’re honing in on some that could be habitable. Every star is now thought to host at least one planet on average, and likely many more.