A team of astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have announced a plan wherein NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope could be used to hunt for Mars-sized planets orbiting brown dwarfs, which share characteristics of both stars and gas giant planets. For astronomers, this is perhaps the most ambitious planet search yet.
So, what of the proposal?
First of all, Spitzer is not like the more famous Hubble Telescope as, unlike Hubble, Spitzer creates images in the infrared, which is basically heat. For the astronomers at MIT, this capability lends itself to the proposed search in that brown dwarfs are actually brighter in the infrared than in visible light. Should the mission become a reality, scientists will not be seeing the planet in the traditional, optical sense, but in the distant worlds’ heat signatures. For Spitzer, this is not exactly new territory as it was the first telescope to detect any kind of extrasolar planet, which it did in 2005 by observing a large, hot, gas giant planet.
In the paper, the team stated, in basic terms, its goal, which is to “represent an essential step towards the atmospheric characterization of terrestrial planets and carries the compelling promise of studying the concept of habitability beyond Earth-like conditions.” to this point, the Holy Grail of astronomers was finding an Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star. In its proposal, MIT is looking for life supporting planets that exist in very different conditions, ones that were not previously a point of interest for study.
For scientists, these accomplishments from Spitzer are all the more reason to look forward to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to replace Spitzer in 2018, especially because Webb is capable of making more detailed observations than Spitzer, potentially revealing planets’ atmospheric compositions, and thus possibilities for life.
As for Spitzer itself, this proposal is, along with many others, being considered as reasons to further extend the mission. If the extension is accepted, his team’s proposal will compete against those of others for valuable telescope time. Spitzer launched in August, 2003 and ran out of coolant (and has thus been living on borrowed time )for four years and is, among other things, hunting Earth-like planets as part of an extended mission.
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