Does life exists beyond Planet Earth? If so, are there any other planets out there similar to ours that could sustain life as we know it?
Helping NASA and the European Space Agency answer those very questions is an Israeli-American team which has developed an essential component for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder, part of the space agency’s larger program, Origin, to find inhabitable planets.
Prof. Abraham Katzir from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Physics is the Israeli member of the team, who joins Prof. Yariv Amnon from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Together they have developed an infrared single mode fiber – a sophisticated optical fiber capable of helping land-based telescopes ‘see’ the atmospheres of other planets. So far they have helped locate hundreds, if not thousands, of other “potentially” inhabitable planets.
The key is to look for planets in outer space that are paired with a sun in the same way Earth is paired to its sun. The infrared technology – with its Israeli-made fibers – helps astronomers do just that, says Katzir.
“What is unique about using infrared is that it can locate and see materials such as ozone,” he explains. The fibers, which make the infrared technology possible, he adds, can also help astronomers detect a telltale presence of oxygen, water and carbon dioxide on other planets.
The equipment shows characteristic colors of these materials, which would otherwise be invisible to the human eye.
The project to locate inhabitable planets was first started by NASA about 20 years ago. Until the new infrared technology was invented, astronomers could rely only on speculative and indirect methods to locate other Earth-like and Sun-like pairs.
Sometime in the near future – the researchers hope by as early as 2012 – these optical fibers will be shuttled into space on satellites. They could locate, with more certainty, which planets in the known universe house similar life-nurturing conditions as we enjoy here on Earth.
The story with Israel started five years ago when Katzir received a letter from NASA asking if he could develop the fibers for the space agency. With some theoretical work done by Prof. Amnon, the fibers have since been tested by NASA/Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories and are currently being tested by the European Space Agency.
“NASA tested it and was pleased with the results,” reports Katzir. “They call it a critical component for the launch of the 2012 satellite. Without it they can’t see the infrared signature of these gases.”
The fibers themselves are made from silver halide, the same material found in photographic film. The Israeli-based team, joined by their partners in Caltech is one of a few groups in the world to make such fibers, says Katzir.
Essential project funding came by way of NASA, as well as the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF). The BSF was established in 1972 by the governments of the United States and Israel to promote and support cooperative, scientific and technological research for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of both countries.
The support of this research has real-world material benefits of interest to both Israel and elsewhere, Katzir notes, especially in defense: “It could be useful for protecting people against shoulder launched missiles, such as the kind used by Al Qaeda and directed at airplanes.”
The tail of an airplane emits infrared, says Katzir, who explains that the fibers could be applied both as part of a radar system against missiles, and also as blocker that can “blind” infrared-seeking missiles from making contact with its target.
Whether it’s here on earth or far-out in outer space, Katzir believes his invention can help humanity. As for life on other planets, his work with NASA has led him to believe that the possibility exists.
“If there had been only one or two [Earth- and Sun-like] pairs like ours, I would say the chances are slim. But it turns out there are hundreds if not thousands of pairs. Statistically now, there is a much better chance.”