On December 17th, the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS telescope will blast into space to take a closer look at some of the potentially habitable planets we’ve found beyond our solar system. Ahead of its launch, Horizon takes an in-depth look at what we already know about such exoplanets and what’s still to learn. We speak to Dr Michaël Gillon, who in 2017 was instrumental in discovering a system of seven Earth-like planets outside our solar system, about the diversity of the thousands of exoplanets we’ve found so far and next steps for research. We talk to scientists who are trying to understand the structure of Super-Earths – planets up to 10 times the size of Earth – by recreating elements of planetary cores in their labs, and others who are trying to understand how different planetary systems formed in the first place. Finally, we delve into one of the most important conditions for life to exist on exoplanets – their atmospheres – and find out how scientists are trying detect the biosignature gases that indicate the presence of life.
It may be that life is lurking out there on other planets. But stuck here on Earth, how can we ever know for sure? A good place to start is by looking for the compounds on other worlds that are known to be the key ingredients of life as we know it.
Twenty-four years ago, Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered the first planet orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system – a milestone recognised by this year’s Nobel prize in physics. Today we know of thousands more ‘exoplanets’, and researchers are now trying to understand when and how they form.
Rocky planets larger than our own, so-called super-Earths, are surprisingly abundant in our Galaxy, and stand as the most likely planets to be habitable. Getting a better idea of their interior structures will help predict whether different planets are able to generate magnetic fields – thought to be conducive for life to survive.
From the first discoveries of planets beyond our solar system in the 1990s, we now know of thousands of alien worlds, some of which could even be habitable to life as we know it. Now we need to detect more of these exoplanets and study them in detail, says astronomer Dr Michaël Gillon from the University of Liège in Belgium, who was involved in one of the most important exoplanet discoveries to date.
In June, against a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, a climate emergency and an uncertain future, Horizon takes a look at anxiety. Are we becoming more anxious? What do we really know about the condition and who suffers from it? And how can we best treat it? We speak to anxiety disorder expert Professor David Baldwin about when anxiety turns from a normal response into a long-term problem and what we know – and don’t – about why this happens. We take a look at one particularly vulnerable group – teenagers – to understand how anxiety affects them and how they can best be treated. We explore the link between anxiety and our awareness of bodily sensations to understand, for example, why breathing can calm the mind, and we also talk to the researchers who believe the key to improving anxiety therapies is to look at how different people respond when under threat.
By 2050, the world's population will be an estimated 9.7bn people, up from today’s 7.7bn. To feed this growing population whilst also protecting the climate and biodiversity, our food system needs to change dramatically. In May, we look at what sort of future food system we want and how to get there. We speak to sustainability expert Prof. Peter Jackson about how lockdowns have exposed our reliance on fragile supply chains, and what needs to happen to shape a more sustainable food system. We look at the smart farming solutions that are being explored to support food producers, and urban experiments from tackling food waste to strengthening organic, local production to see how these efforts can be scaled up to make a big difference. And we investigate insects – a protein-rich food and feed source – and the efforts behind mainstreaming what is still a niche science.
In our continuing search for other life in the universe, one place has always looked promising – Mars. It is a rocky planet like Earth, orbiting the same star, and at a distance where water could have been present on the planet.
Moving more goods by water could reduce pressure on roads and cut emissions, yet Europe’s shipping industry is held back by labour shortages. Automated shipping – which would work in a similar way to self-driving cars – could help expand capacity but safety and regulatory hurdles remain.
The red planet may be our best bet for finding out whether we’re alone in the universe.
Reducing crew numbers onboard ships could overcome labour shortages and increase shipping levels.
Metagenomics can help us spot emerging diseases such as coronavirus, says virologist Marion Koopmans.