The Canadian Space Agency has granted $1.1 million to a research team led by a Quebec astrophysicist to develop a new space telescope.
It could lead to an important Canadian space mission to find life in the universe.
A team of Canadian researchers, from Bishop’s and Western universities, is in the process of designing a small — and relatively inexpensive — telescope: one that can detect distant stars and their extrasolar planets, or exoplanets.
These are planets that revolve around another sun and could potentially support human life or at least “some of them,” explained Jason Rowe, the research chair in exoplanetary astrophysics at Bishop’s University.
“One of the biggest questions in astronomy nowadays is the search for life — extrasolar life — in the universe,” said Stanimir Metchev, Canada research chair in extrasolar planets and professor at Western University‘s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.
But the scientists are clear: they’re not looking for extraterrestrials. Instead, it’s about, “understanding the origins of planets and the origins of life as we see it today,” explained Rowe.
“The (planets) we’re searching for would be earth-sized and potentially have the conditions that would be right for hosting life as we know it, as exists on earth,” Rowe said.
The Photometric Observations of Extrasolar Transits mission — or POET, for short — is just at the prototype stage, but the launch date for the telescope could be as early as 2025. Total project costs are around $15 million, most of that going to creating jobs, particularly for science students.
Unlike other telescopes, like the Hubble, which are international collaborations between different space agencies, the POET telescope will be entirely Canadian-made and operated.
This summer, two billionaires launched their own space missions. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched his Blue Origin rocket on July 20.
Just nine days earlier, the founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson blasted off on his own rocket.
Both companies now plan to sell tickets to escape the earth’s atmosphere for those who can spare $200,000 or more.
The televised launches were met with mixed reactions, including from Metchev and Rowe.
“I understand the backlash,” said Metchev. “There’s billions of dollars being spent … just to bring it to the richest sliver of society.”
But he added: “On the other hand, that’s what drives technological development in space these days, and we absolutely need space.”
Professor Metchev said the kind of monitoring that can be done from space can help solve big global problems like climate change and famine.
Professor Rowe is more skeptical of the benefits space tourism will bring to the field.
“I think the race of billionaires to get into space first can be a distraction from what we’re trying to do,” he said.
In the last 20 years, science has made major cosmic discoveries.
“Now we know there are more planets in our Milky Way Galaxy than there are stars. That means there’s billions and billions of planets out there,” he said.
Some of those planets might hold the key to one of the world’s oldest mysteries.
“Were the origins of life just a fluke accident that just happened here on earth?” Rowe asked.
Or does it also exist somewhere else in the universe?