The next frontier: dawn of space's brave new worlds
Published 03/03/2010 | 05:00
SCIENTISTS are hopeful of entering an era of 'brave new worlds'. Yesterday, they said an era of planet discovery was dawning that will see thousands of new worlds identified in the next few years. Some of these may even harbour life.
The search could transform humanity's view of its place in the universe. More than 400 'exoplanets', which orbit stars beyond the sun, have been catalogued since 1991.
A report from the Institute of Physics is now predicting that in the coming years "the number will rise to thousands".
British astronomers and other scientists are in the vanguard of the research.
Exoplanets -- The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System says: "Future instruments may enable researchers to image small, rocky planets like Earth, orbiting distant sun-like stars and analyse their atmospheres for signs of life."
It adds: "Such searches represent the next frontier for scientific explorationfollowing in the footsteps of Galileo and Darwin."
Finding small rocky planets is a key step towards discovering a second Earth, it says .
Scientists believe that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is teeming with planets. It is estimated that more than 10 billion of its 100 billion stars could host planetary systems. At least one in 10 stars that are similar to the sun may be orbited by planets.
Life-sustaining planets are likely to occupy a narrow orbital band just far enough away from their parent star to allow the existence of liquid surface water.
Known as the 'habitable' or 'Goldilocks' zone -- where conditions are neither too hot nor too cold -- its size varies according to how bright or dim the star is.
Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive at the Institute of Physics, said: "This report provides yet another illustration of how the techniques and knowledge provided by physics help us to further develop our understanding of the universe."