Coordinated by ETH Zurich, the European LIFE mission is seeking to characterise the atmospheric composition of hundreds of nearby exoplanets to discover if life on exoplanets can exist beyond our Solar System.
What is life? How unique is this phenomenon to our planet? How common is life in the Cosmos? Does life on exoplanets exist? These questions, which are heavily intertwined, have been in the focus of scientific research and scholarly discussions for centuries. However, only the next cohort of ambitious space-based telescopes built within our generation will be designed to start addressing them.
How we can detect life on exoplanets
LIFE (Large Interferometer For Exoplanets) is a European-led initiative coordinated by researchers from ETH Zurich with the goal to outline the scientific potential and coordinate the development of the required technology for such a space mission. Once operational, the LIFE mission will allow humankind to detect and characterise the atmospheric composition of hundreds of nearby exoplanets, i.e., planets orbiting other stars than our Sun, including dozens similar to Earth. If life exists on these Earth siblings, LIFE could discover so-called biosignatures, imprints of biological activity, in the light emitted by the atmospheres of these planets.
The first detection of a planet orbiting another Sun-like star in 1995 was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Over the last 25 years, more than 4000 exoplanets have been detected. Based on these successes, studying the atmospheres of a statistically significant number of rocky, terrestrial exoplanets – including the search for habitable and potentially inhabited planets – became one of the primary goals of exoplanetary science and one of the most challenging scientific questions in 21st century astrophysics.
Currently operational and already planned telescopes and missions are, however, limited in their technical capabilities and will not be able to investigate a sizable sample. Hence, a new generation of missions is needed. Complementary to other approaches investigated by NASA, the LIFE mission initiative addresses this goal by investigating the implementation of a formation-flying nulling interferometer in space consisting of five spacecraft and working at mid-infrared wavelengths.
The LIFE initiative welcomes collaborations with members from the scientific community and with industrial partners. Relevant areas of technology development with room for collaboration include mid-infrared low-noise detectors, integrated optics for mid-infrared, cryogenic applications, autonomous formation flying of spacecraft, light-weight mirrors and optical components, and cryogenic wavefront control.
Are we alone in the Universe?
Given the profound nature of the objectives of LIFE, we are dedicated to share our scientific vision and explain our motivation to the general public, decision-makers from policy and industry, and potential future sponsors. We are convinced that within the next 25 years, a mission like LIFE is not only feasible but is the best empirical approach that will bring us a big step closer to addressing the question: ‘Are we alone in the Universe?’.
AREAS OF EXPERTISE:
- Planetary Science
- Space instrumentation
- Diversity of extrasolar planets
- Origin and prevalence of life
- Remote detection of exoplanetary atmospheres
- MIR space-grade optics and technology
- Autonomous spacecraft technologies