This exoplanet telescope could help astronomers discover alien life

A team of astronomers and a number of outer space enthusiasts have joined forces to investigate whether we’re alone in the universe. As part of the PLANETS Foundation, these scientists are working to create a revolutionary exoplanet telescope designed specifically to search for nearby planets and scan them for signs of life.

In April, the team sought funding for the first of three phases of the telescope, and raised more than double its goal of $20,000 to implement features like advanced polishing and ultra-thin mirrors. Now, the team is seeking funding for its second phase, the ExoLife Finder.

PLANETS is short for Polarized Light from Atmospheres of Nearby Extraterrestrial Systems. Designed from the ground up, the new ExoLife Finder will be capable of seeing exoplanets some 24 light years (120 trillion miles) away.

“This is the world’s first telescope designed for direct exoplanet imaging,” Jeff Kuhn, an astronomer from the University of Hawaii who is leading the project, told Digital Trends. “It’s the only telescope with the power to map the surface of the nearest habitable zone exoplanet.”

Kuhn and his team have developed a unique algorithm designed specifically to identify continents, oceans, and perhaps even lifeforms on nearby exoplanets. In the process, it will search for important molecules like water, oxygen, and methane — vital to life as we know it — while looking out for large colonies of photosynthetic organisms. It may even spot massive landfills, a signal of an advanced civilization.

Assuming the team reaches its funding goal of $35,000 (they’ve raised nearly $23,000 with twelve days to go at the time this article was published) its first target will be Proxima Centauri b, an exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of the closest star to Earth. The discovery of Proxima b was just announced in August 2016. Although this year it was shown that the planet can’t maintain an Earth-like atmosphere, the relative newness of exoplanet discoveries has made this exoplanet and others a hot topic.

“Our generation is the first to find planets around other stars, and the next generation will be the first to discover and study life around these stars,” Kuhn said. “With this program we can transition the philosophical problems of the origins of life to truly scientific, and even experimental questions.”

Rewards for supporting the campaign include posters, pins, shirts, and “Cosmic Lights,” which are LED gifts featuring lifeforms found on Earth that may be capable of withstanding extreme conditions of outer space.