The race to find traces of alien life has begun: James Webb, Extremely Large Telescope (Elt) and Plato are just three of the future, very powerful, tools that will soon arrive on the field to guide researchers from all over the world in a tense competition to discover the first forms of extraterrestrial life. A goal that can be achieved within 10 years, according to Michel Mayor, Nobel Prize in Physics 2019 for the discovery in 1995 of the first exoplanet, and Marco Tavani, president of the National Institute of Astrophysics (Inaf).

“The limit that has not yet allowed us to identify any signatures of the presence of life in exoplanets is purely technological, but the new generation of instruments that we will soon be putting in place will almost certainly guarantee us that extra step we needed”, he said. said Mayor during the press conference organized by INAF, which anticipates a series of meetings that the Swiss Nobel Prize is scheduled in Rome, also in view of the European Researchers’ Night (NET).

“Searching for traces of alien life – added Mayor – is now a priority of many space agencies and research institutions. There is an enormous pressure of investments and resources and I think it is only a matter of time”.

The James Webb space telescope, the European Elt with its mammoth 40-meter mirror and the Plato space mission will be just some of the new workhorses to focus on to track down the first chemical signatures of the presence of life on planets far away from us. Mayor is sure of this, who in 1995 announced the sighting of the first exoplanet, in collaboration with his student Didier Queloz, on the occasion of a scientific conference in Florence and shortly after with an article in Nature.

Since then, the list of existing planets around other stars has grown at an increasing rate, today there are more than 5,000. Of these, most are Jupiter-like gas giants or ‘weird’ planets where life would surely be impossible. Only a few handfuls of worlds are similar to the Earth and even fewer are those in the so-called habitability zone, ie at the right distance from the star so that they can have liquid water considered a requirement for the presence of life. “We only know a few of them because they are smaller and more difficult to observe,” said Mayor.

Finding Earth twins populated by life forms is only a matter of time: “maximum 10 years, I’m ready to bet,” says Tavani. “An incredible race has begun – he added – between research groups to be the first to find traces of alien life. All groups characterized by great collaborations, but also by strong competition”. A challenge that sees Italian researchers starting in the very first rows, present in practically all the major programs: “we expect a lot, for example, from the spectrograph Hires that will be installed on Elt and that will be under the guidance of Inaf”, Tavani specified.

Soon, therefore, a new extraordinary scientific chapter may open “but we must always remember – underlines Mayor – that our planet is the Earth and it will never be possible to reach the exoplanets”. Even with the best technologies, the Swiss researcher recalls, it would take millions of years to get to the closest. “We continue to study the universe and exoplanets, but – he concluded – let’s also remember to preserve our planet, we have no plans B”.


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