Photobombing of exoplanets could hinder the search for extraterrestrial life

It’s frustrating when a stranger takes your family photo while you’re on vacation. But when an exoplanet photobombs a space telescope’s image of another exoplanet, it can actually ruin a scientist’s research.

Yes, planetary photobombing is something like that. For those who don’t know what a photobomb is, Merriam-Webster defines it as “moving into the frame of a photograph taken as a joke or prank.” The catch is that exoplanets don’t intentionally ruin a photo, but they can do it unintentionally.

A new study led by Prabal Saxena, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., indicates that a space telescope’s image of a distant exoplanet (that is, a planet outside our solar system) may be contaminated by light from another planets. nearest exoplanet. This could potentially lead to errors in the analysis of data, especially light spectra, which could be indicative of the exoplanet’s chemical composition.

On the subject: 10 most Earth-like exoplanets

“If you look at an Earth near Mars or Venus from a distant vantage point, depending on when you observed them, you might think they are the same object,” Saxena said in a statement. (will open in a new tab).

Since space telescopes must “see” at very large distances, light diffraction could likely lead to a visual merger between two exoplanets. This causes problems when scientists try to analyze the spectra of an exoplanet looking for biosignatures or signs of life. Cross-contamination from another object can completely skew the results.

As such, Saxena’s team has proposed several methods that could mitigate planetary photobombing, from using multiple telescopes to survey the same area to using a single telescope to observe exoplanets over a long period of time, which could help distinguish an object from a photobomber. when they move. their orbits.

The scientists, however, say more research is needed to address the problem effectively.

The team’s research has been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. (will open in a new tab) Aug. eleven.

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