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Searching for life outside earth

Camera technology could enable the detection of earth-like planets in space

For astrophysicists, finding an Earth-like planet somewhere in the vast universe is their “holy grail.” Take the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which constantly points to the possibility of finding planets that are hospitable enough to host life. Just this summer, NASA administrator Charles Bolden publicly said during a panel discussion that most NASA scientists believe there is life beyond earth. Driven by that collective belief, astrophysicists throughout the world are searching for ways to detect these planets.

NASA is well known for searching for signs of life in our solar system, specifically on Mars, but NASA scientists – and other scientists throughout the world – are also searching for Earth-like planets that orbit other stars. Scientists estimate that nearly every star in our galaxy has at least one planet circling it.

One such scientist, Dr. Daniel Batcheldor, associate professor of physics and space science at the Florida Institute of Technology, is sending a sophisticated camera to the International Space Station (ISS) to determine if it could one day be used to take direct images of these potentially life-supporting planets.

The camera – called the Thermo Scientific™ SPECTRA CAM XDR – uses charge injection device (CID) imager technology, which is capable of observing a faint object in the presence of an object that is 1 billion times brighter - similar to trying to spot a candle next to a lighthouse. Existing camera technology cannot observe these extreme contrasts, so scientists currently use other techniques, like looking at a planet’s gravitational pull, which appears as wobbling movement. Batcheldor believes CID imagers could one day enable scientists to actually see the planet itself.

However, before these CID cameras can be used to take images of earthlike planets, Batcheldor first needs to confirm the feasibility of using them in space. He recently received funding from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a NASA arm created to test technology, such as CID imagers. The funding will enable Batcheldor to adapt the SPECTRA CAM XDR to space flight safety requirements and to launch the camera on a third-party rocket, which is tentatively scheduled to take place next year.

Once the camera arrives on the ISS, it will be placed on an external platform that will expose it to the space environment for about 90 days. Research projects that are placed external to the ISS are a new venture for NASA, as until recently, most experiments were conducted in the microgravity environment inside the space station. Once the camera returns from space, it will go through a series of ground-based tests. If all goes as planned, Batcheldor will propose flying a small space telescope affixed with a flight-qualified CID camera to image the brightest, closest stars. The whole process could take five to ten years.

Other technologies searching for these Earth-like planets include large ground-based telescopes designed to collect light from faint objects using extensive exposure times, but Batcheldor believes that CID cameras could prove to be a more cost-effective, simpler way to search for life beyond earth. 

International space station on orbit of Earth planet view from outer space. ISS. Nebula. Vertical wallpaper. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

“NASA is well known for searching for signs of life in our solar system, specifically on Mars, but NASA scientists – and other scientists throughout the world – are also searching for Earth-like planets that orbit other stars. Scientists estimate that nearly every star in our galaxy has at least one planet circling it."