Space exploration and the discovery of alien life have been of great interest to humans for decades. In recent times developments have been made, but there is still a long way to go before we have a United Nations on Mars! However, missions to discover Earth-like planets can bring us one step closer to achieving this reality. One such mission, led by Don Pollaco at the University of Warwick, has recently been given the go-ahead.
This mission will involve sending satellites into space, most notably the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO). The PLATO mission will help address how common Earth-like planets are, and whether our solar system is unusual or even unique. It even has the potential to eventually lead to the detection of extra-terrestrial life. The satellite will also investigate seismic activity in some stars in order to determine information such as their mass and age to and help to understand their exoplanet systems.
…it will be able to help find planets across large areas of space, and process vast amounts of information on these planets.
The satellite will search for tiny, regular dips in brightness as the planets cross in front of stars, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight. However, the signals satellites pick up can be sometimes obscured by objects such as meteors that can appear to be planets, which can lead to false positives. These issues can be overcome through the use of machine learning techniques; new algorithms can be developed to distinguish false positives from real objects. The use of Big Data can help significantly with planet detection; it will be able to help find planets across large areas of space, and process vast amounts of information on these planets.
More generally, while there are many advocates for planet detection and space exploration, there is opposition. The most popular counter-argument would be whether or not we should focus on solving issues on our own planet before discovering others. This may not be a question of research, since climate change has been proven to exist for example, but there is the opportunity cost of research funding that helps deal with current issues on Earth. It may also be important that humans learn how to handle conflicting opinions, particularly in a political sense, before research into planet discovery is done.
It may also be important that humans learn how to handle conflicting opinions, particularly in a political sense, before research into planet discovery is done.
Nonetheless, if the research is there, it can help prepare humans for a time when exploring other planets will be necessary. Additionally, because some of the research at Warwick will involve machine learning and Big Data, research into this can help advance these fields and automation in general which, if used safely, can help improve current living conditions on Earth. Improvements in machine learning can also help develop more efficient rockets, such as with SpaceX, that can help with visiting the planets themselves, albeit far in the future.
Though the work is in its early stages, research into new planet detection can help us to further understand exoplanets and how the universe is structured, and help us acquire new knowledge that could potentially help us with machine learning techniques. The research applications should nevertheless be considered carefully; we may find less than we expect, but even finding one very Earth-like planet could have an important societal impact.