Discover: What recent exoplanetary finds have amazed you?
Sarah Seager: The best thing that’s happened in the past year or so is the [large] number of potentially habitable planets that have been found. I grew up with this field, so for me it’s so thrilling. The entire field is just snowballing.
The discoveries often are made possible by new instruments. What new equipment are you especially eager to use?
SS: Any time you put a new and more capable instrument on a telescope, you always find new things. The latest is the Gemini Planet Imager [in Chile]. It blocks out starlight, so you can see the planet directly and study its atmosphere. It will do direct imaging of giant Jupiter-like planets.
Your “starshade” idea, which could be launched into orbit by about 2022, would improve planetary picture-snapping. What’s the idea here?
SS: The challenge in finding an Earth twin is, how do you block out the light of a sunlike star to find a planet that’s 10 billion times fainter than it? The starshade does the hard work by blocking out all the starlight, spatially separating the planet and the star. You can use this shade with the equipment we already have, such as small commercial space telescopes that we already use for remote sensing of Earth’s atmosphere.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is set to launch in 2017, and the James Webb Space Telescope will launch in 2018. What will they do?
SS: TESS will do an all-sky survey to find rocky worlds around the bright, closest M-stars [red dwarfs that are common and smaller than the sun — and therefore more likely to reveal the shadows cast by planets], about 500,000 stars. We’ll follow up with the James Webb to look at the atmospheres of this small pool of planets.
When a planet travels in front of its star, some of the starlight passes through the atmosphere, and some of the atmospheric gases leave telltale signatures on that starlight. By separating out the starlight from the planet light, we can identify molecules in the planet’s atmosphere and look for gases produced by life, like oxygen, ozone and ammonia.
With these newfound abilities to detect extraterrestrial life, you’ve recently revised the famous 1961 Drake equation, which calculates the odds for finding intelligent alien life and has influenced the search for it ever since. Why? What’s changed about our chances of success?
SS: I decided to revise the equation to tell the world that the real search for alien life is ongoing. The equation now tells us what the chances are that we’ll be able to find signs of life on a rocky exoplanet in the next decade with TESS and the James Webb.
The new equation has six terms. The first three are quantifiable: How many stars can we look at? How many are “quiet,” or not producing lots of radiation that could destroy biosignature gases or interfere with planet detection? And, how many stars have rocky planets in the habitable zone?
The next three terms of the equation involve the fraction of planets that can be observed, that have life and produce a detectable biosignature gas. Plugging in the numbers, the punch line is: If there is a rocky planet transiting a nearby bright M-star with signs of life in its atmosphere, we will be able to find it.