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.
With the world in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, in April Horizon takes a step back to look at some of the challenges around sudden outbreaks of emerging diseases. We speak to virologist Prof. Marion Koopmans about the likelihood of future outbreaks of new diseases, what causes them and how to spot them before they appear. We speak to scientists who are helping to develop tests for Covid-19 to understand the challenges in coming up with an accurate and detailed diagnostic test for an entirely new disease. We talk to people working on coronavirus treatments about how to shorten the normally lengthy process of drug development. And we look into why diseases suddenly jump from animals, such as bats, into humans and the particular challenges of spotting and responding to these types of outbreaks.
Private companies are increasingly active in the space sector – from high-profile businesses such as SpaceX or Virgin Galactic to the nearly 3,000 small businesses that provide elements for the European Space Agency’s space programme. In March, Horizon explores the impact of this on research and innovation. We speak to a space law researcher about how to avoid the problems emerging from an increasingly crowded orbit, such as collisions. We look at how to minimise the environmental impact of satellites and delve into efforts to build a reusable European launcher for small payloads. We also look at the challenge of assembling, maintaining and repairing objects in space and the developments in space robotics that could help.
A team that has spent the last five years developing a pipeline of technologies that can churn out a remedy for almost any newly emerging virus may have treatments ready for safety trials on Covid-19 patients by the end of the year.
By harnessing the power of strong winds at higher altitude than turbines reach, airborne wind energy could be another key source of renewable energy, but it will need a combination of successful designs, more robust software and good storytelling to really take off.
Scientists are developing a pipeline to churn out remedies for almost any newly emerging virus.
Airborne energy systems aim to capitalise on the stronger winds at high altitudes.
The more satellite launches we do, the bigger the risk of damage or debris, says Dimitra Stefoudi.