Welcome to “Carl Sagan country,” where much of the world’s astronomy takes place, but not all scientists can afford to live in the Los Angeles suburb or in the cosmopolitan capital city of Santiago.
To find planets like our own is the goal of scientists in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where around 700 acres have been allotted to the Space Program Innovation Center.
Astrobiologists are now running a project called Maria to explore the myriad other planets, stars and galaxies in the galactic universe, in hopes of finding other life. It is also a series of gravitational waves and colliding black holes and deuterium star clusters, and even a monstrous black hole that so dwarfs our sun that it looks like a star on the verge of going dark.
Anthony E. Sagliani is a physicist and investigator at the Franklin Institute, who helps organize these astronomical investigations for the team.
“From the end of the summer, we’ll be using nearly 100 instruments, each doing one task, one beam,” he said. “That’s why we call it Star Trek: Interstellar. Every beam will fly to a different planet. The hardware and software is the same across the project.”
They are seeking planets where, if they are like us, life could evolve and, therefore, appear within the lifetime of this very program. Of these, they have chosen ten: ones which show several factors that are necessary for evolution: large populations, powerful magnetic fields, atmospheres rich in oxygen and/or water, surrounding magnetic fields and signs of oxygen loss of bone-white.
The universe is expanding, Sagliani explains, and gravity is shifting around in the universe. The celestial objects we see around us don’t have a constant uppermost gravitational pull, he says, “but it moves around and changes over time.” Astrophysicists observe these movements with mirrors and detectors, which shake the objects in whatever direction they point. “And then we count,” he adds.
Using all these observatories together, these scientists are trying to find the handful of planets that, if they have sufficient organic material, will arise. If their red, gravity-losing gas is replaced by a gas of gold and oxygen, then a life-sparking process could well develop there.
Sagliani said that the program was akin to a career in astronomy. “Most of the scientists here are like drill-pickers,” he said. “They are looking for a hole in the ground. They’re looking for places where you can really do something.” He compared them to a living creature, floating in space. “A soul. It would be like that.”
Just like a living creature, they would have a view. And if they were lucky enough to spot life, they would record it with cameras all around the globe, which will then be analyzed in future. And for that, they may need a TV star.
“Carl Sagan won a big Emmy, and he might be alive and well in Chile,” Sagliani said, citing the famous physicist who died in 1996. “There’s no reason why we can’t find Carl Sagan to tell us that he is out there.”
These scientists are doing some amazing work, but not all of their efforts have been carried out in sunny Southern California. It is also called “cold science” and it is something of a graveyard for planets like ours, since the climate is too cold and dark for life. By some calculations, less than 1 percent of planets have a temperature high enough to sustain life. And so, astronomers all over the world have recently been hunting for planets like ours that will support life by using visible and infrared light.
“We’re looking for planets around massive stars which have billions of times the energy that we have here on Earth,” Sagliani said. “And these do not have the same kind of gravitational attraction which seems to preclude life.”