If there is life on a planet, these living organisms will affect which gases are in its atmosphere. In turn, the composition of atmospheric gases affects the wavelength of the light reflected by the planet. Researchers can therefore discover whether there is life on the planet by studying and analyzing the reflected light.
However, capturing light from planets in other solar systems, known as exoplanets, is difficult. The weak light reflected by the planet is smothered by the light of its nearby star and, in addition, the light from distant solar systems is deformed when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.
To make it possible to study distant planets, Dr Kristina Davis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA, is developing technical solutions for recreating a sharp image of an exoplanet and preserving as much as possible of the important information present in the light scattered of the planet. More detailed images of exoplanets will not only reveal whether we have company in the universe, but also provide new knowledge about these planets’ climates and how they formed.
How did your interest in trying to search for life on planets in other solar systems by analysing the light from the remote planets’ atmospheres start?
"As a scientist, I want to guide my research through answering some of the biggest questions that we as humans have. To my mind, one of the biggest questions is “are we alone?” The most realistic way of answering that question is by searching for signatures of biological processes that affect the host planet’s atmosphere, for example seeing water vapor, oxygen, and other chemicals in the atmosphere that mimic our own composition. My research aims to better separate the planet light from the host star’s light, thereby making chemical analysis of those atmospheres easier and more robust. My research is one small step in this process, but answering these big questions takes a large community of people working together."
What does this grant mean for your research?
"The Wallenberg Academy Foundation’s grant will enable me to invest in developing new technology to help answer this question. Instrumentation is an expensive research field, but ultimately one that has the largest impact on how to directly image extrasolar planets. And technology is not the only part of the equation. Research is only accelerated by the students who build devices, write software, and perform calibrations for the instrument to be successful. The Wallenberg fellowship will help me hit the ground running and focus on how to make our measurements better, not how to get the resources to make it possible."
In what way will your new research project benefit society?
“Are we alone” is a big question that has interested humanity since we were able to look out to the stars. But what that question leads to is another question, “what conditions are needed for life to exist?” One of the upcoming crisis for our planet is climate change. By studying exoplanet systems, we can gain a better understanding of what processes are common or uncommon in planetary systems, and how different initial conditions can lead to planets either very similar or very different than our own. It is my hope that by studying the environment of planetary systems, we will appreciate how unique our own Earth is, which can inspire a wider commitment to help our planet survive and thrive."
Text: Robert Karlsson
Four Wallenberg Academy Fellows to Chalmers 2021
The research funding from the Wallenberg Academy Fellowship amounts to between SEK 5 and 15 million per researcher over five years, depending on the subject area. After the end of the first period, researchers have the opportunity to apply for another five years of funding. Read about the other appointments:
Hannes Thiel, Mathematical Sciences