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 November, Horizon takes a deep dive into the captivating, diverse world of clouds to understand what they mean for climate change. We speak to atmospheric physicist Prof. Pier Siebesma about why clouds are still one of the biggest sources of uncertainty when it comes to climate change and how new field studies are helping to reduce some of the unknowns. We speak to a researcher about flying through tropical clouds to collect particles at high altitudes to paint a full picture of the role of clouds and aerosols in our planet’s climate. And we also delve into research investigating how global warming is changing clouds and why this could bring about extreme weather and rain, and we look at how aerosols – crucial for cloud formation - are changing due to anthropogenic pollution.
In October, Horizon discovers a futuristic world of transparent e-books, plastic solar cells and electronic skin with a look at some of the applications of organic electronics. We speak to organic chemist Prof. Andreas Hirsch about how using carbon rather than silicon in electronics can make them flexible, lightweight and biocompatible and could lead to a new generation of human-looking robots and ‘chemical’ computing. We take a look at work to create electronic skin – self-healing, stretchable material that can mimic some of the functions of human skin – and its potential uses. We discover how thin, flexible, plastic solar cells could turn surfaces such as cars and fabric into sources of renewable energy, and we uncover some novel approaches to charging wearable electronics.
Particles swirling around our atmosphere add to climate change, yet much about how they interact with sunlight and influence the seeding of clouds remains puzzling. Studies are lifting the lid on how these tiny particles influence something as big as climate by analysing them from jet aircraft, satellites and ground measurements.
Live vaccines can give health effects beyond just protecting us from a specific disease and may even help us combat other infections such as Covid-19, according to Christine Stabell Benn, a professor in global health at the University of Southern Denmark.
Different particle types affect our climate in various ways.
Different people respond to medication in different ways – and the results can be fatal.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.