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‘There’s Life Out There,’ Scientists in Search for Exoplanets Claim

The Low-Frequency Array in the Netherlands that scientists are using to detect radio signals from exoplanets. Credit: LOFAR, CC BY 3.0

Australian scientists have recently detected radio signals from nineteen red dwarf stars using Earth’s strongest antenna—the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR), located in the Netherlands. A study detailing the findings was published in Nature Astronomy.

The study shows that four of those nineteen stars are emitting signals that could mean there are planets orbiting them.

University of Queensland astrophysicist Dr. Benjamin Pope says that the results create “radically new opportunities” for understanding exoplanets, which may be hospitable to human life.

The research that was published recently in Nature Astronomy was the culmination of a collaboration between astronomers at the Dutch national observation ASTRON and Pope. Pope plans to publish a second paper that confirms the data using an optical telescope.

Pope said that Australia has played a key role in exploring the limits of space, stating that the country’s scientific research agency, CSIRO, first began studying the sky with military radar during World War II. Then CSIRO eventually created the Parkes Observatory, which is colloquially known as “The Dish.”

Radio signals detected by LOFAR strongly indicate presence of exoplanets

LOFAR is a prototype, or “pathfinder,” that will help build the Square Kilometre Array, which, upon completion, will be the largest telescope on the planet. The Array will be located in Western Australia and South Africa. “LOFAR’s a mini version of what we can expect in WA in five to 10 years,” Pope said.

The study’s lead author Joseph Callingham said that the team is certain the signals are emanating from a magnetic connection between the stars and imperceptible orbiting planets.

“It’s a spectacle that has attracted our attention from light-years away,” Callingham said.

Pope said that more research is still necessary but that “the evidence rules out all the other possibilities other than that it is a star interacting with a planet.”

“We now have a new window on the sky thanks to the power of Lofar and techniques like putting on the [polarized] sunnies,” he added. “This opens up a realm of possibilities for the future.”

But scientists have only scratched the surface of space with LOFAR. When the SKA is completed, “we’ll find hundreds and hundreds of these things,” marveled Pope.

One of the key aspects of the team’s findings is that the planets which orbit red dwarves frequently experience temperatures similar to those found on Earth.

“So we’re looking for habitable planets as potential abodes for life,” he said. “It’s not about finding Planet B for us to move to. It’s about finding whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. This would be a profound discovery.”

But while their temperatures are promising, Pope, who also studies exoplanets, cautioned that the levels of radiation on these planets may make them uninhabitable.

While Pope made sure to distinguish between his team’s study and the search for extraterrestrial life, he did say that he was optimistic.

“I do think there’s life out there,” he maintained. “I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t think there was some realistic prospect of that.”

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