In the 1970s, scientific researchers coined the term “The Goldilocks Zone” for the region in space that is just the right distance from the sun. In this region, and only in this region, is liquid water possible–too cold, and it freezes; too hot, and it burns up. The European Space Agency has announced plans for a new space mission under the name of Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars (PLATO), which will seek out planets that reside within this elusive region, targeting advanced life forms in the process.
A space observatory equipped with a staggering 34 telescopes, PLATO will be able to investigate up to a million stars scattered throughout half the sky. The basic premise behind the mission is that PLATO will seek out stars beyond this solar system that show telltale signs of having planets (known as exoplanets) that revolve around them. Such stars will occasionally grow dimmer as the planets orbit them, briefly blocking the starlight from PLATO and thus revealing itself to be the host of a solar system.
Once an exoplanet is revealed, PLATO will measure vibrations in the host star to determine its internal composition. This information will assist greatly with projecting a planet’s density, thereby providing researchers with a way to know if it has a low density like the outer planets or the high density of a planet like Earth. While over a thousand exoplanets have been discovered previously, the technology did not exist to characterize them any further, a problem PLATO hopes to solve.
While the European Space Agency’s plan to target advanced life forms in such a systematic way is cause for excitement, some scientists urge curbing the hype surrounding the project. Adam Burrows, a professor at Princeton, is one such example. Burrows, though encouraged by the opportunity, cautions that little is known about exoplanets. He goes on to say that the media has sensationalized the topic to the point where the expectations behind finding life on exoplanets have become irrational, and that no meaningful conclusions can be drawn just yet.
Even so, there is plenty of room to hope that PLATO will shine a welcome light in the dark, mysterious void that is space. By specifically targeting planets in a habitable region of solar systems that also have the appropriate density to sustain life, the European Space Agency has drawn up a plan that could not only find advanced life, but also answer questions about this solar system as well.
Furthermore, the possibility always exists that a planet every bit as habitable as Earth exists in a nearby solar system that does not have advanced life forms. In such an instance, could this be an alternate location for humans if (when) the Earth’s condition continues to worsen?
Whatever the results of the European Space Agency’s attempt to target advanced life forms in exoplanets, the hype will have plenty of time to build even more over the next decade. PLATO is set to launch what is expected to be a six-year mission in 2024.
By Spencer Hendricks