“New telescopes will be able to see whether the atmospheres of other, extremely distant planets contain oxygen. According to New Scientist magazine, the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), slated for completion on Cerro Armazones, a Chilean mountaintop within the next decade, will be able to divine whether the gases necessary to support life as we know it are present in a planet’s atmosphere.
Current telescopes aren’t strong enough to detect atmospheric makeup of anything but big, gaseous planets, called “gas giants.” There are two gas giants in our own solar system, Saturn and Jupiter, large planets made of liquids and gases which scientists study by examining the way light passes through their atmospheres. Ignas Snellen of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands told New Scientist, “We do this now for Jupiter-sized planets.”
Atmospheres on smaller, rocky planets like our own are harder to detect, particularly when current telescopes have difficulty filtering out Earth’s own oxygen-rich atmosphere from its observations.
The ELT, however, will be a huge leap forward. It will boast a mirror 39 meters (about 130 feet) across and will be sensitive enough to see some of the furthest known galaxies and star systems in the universe. It will also be able to see beyond Earth’s atmosphere because it will be sensitive enough to read whether the air it’s observing is rotating with the Earth or with the other planet by way of the atmosphere’s wavelength band.
The search promises to be no easy task. A planet will have to pass between its home star and the telescope multiple times for astronomers to gather enough information about it to determine its atmospheric contents. Depending on the shape of its orbit and the size of its star, it could take between four years and four centuries to get the right data.”
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