New Telescope Chip Could Be Game Changer in Hunt for Aliens

Stuart Hay/ANU

We’d love to know if there are alien critters zipping around the surface of the one of the 44 potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve discovered, but unfortunately, the limits of our astronomical technology don’t allow us to get a good view of what exactly most exoplanets look like. Are they exotic, tropical worlds teeming with life? Or irradiated, barren wastelands? A team of Australian researchers want to know so they invented a new optical chip that could allow powerful telescopes to take clear images of alien worlds for the first time ever.

Giving those aforementioned 44 exoplanets the label of “habitable” really just means they reside in a region of orbital space where they could potentially sustain liquid water. We have no way to confirm if the planet has water, or an atmosphere and climate that’s amenable to life — much less whether or not such extraterrestrial life currently resides on the planet. In order to actually determine that, our best bet is to photograph the planets with cleanly.

Unfortunately, an alien planet’s host star is usually flaring up with an obscene amount of brightness that it obscures the view and makes us unable to image the planet properly.

The researchers, hailing from the Australian National University and presenting their breakthrough at the Australian Institute of Physics Congress in Brisbane this week, say their new chip effectively removes the light emitted from host star for the telescope’s view. Boom — we have a clear view of the planet.

“This chip is an interferometer that adds equal but opposite light waves from a host sun which cancels out the light from the sun, allowing the much weaker planet light to be seen,” said ANU physicist Steve Madden in a news release. He likens the chip to an optical version of noise cancelling headphones.

The research team says say far, the chip allows a telescope to peer through dust clouds in star systems and detect planets that in the process of forming. The idea is to use this same technology to one day assess the habitability of exoplanets by seeing what kind of atmosphere they possess — specifically whether or not they possess a layer of ozone that can facilitate livable conditions for organisms.

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