Study of life outside Earth by observatory’s researcher was covered on CNN’s front page

Research co-authored by Tartu Observatory’s Senior Research Fellow Mihkel Pajusalu has gained international interest: among others, CNN covered the topic on their front page. The study focuses on researching the conditions that would potentially host life outside of Earth.

Until now, the Universe has only been searched for Earth-like conditions. This, however, might be a very narrow way of thinking. Pajusalu and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published an article in Nature Astronomy. In the paper, the researchers show that life should not only be looked for from planets similar to Earth, but also the ones that are alien compared to our home planet. The study compared the growth of simple microorganisms in different atmospheres, including pure hydrogen and helium.

The research shows that even organisms not used to living in a hydrogen environment can handle it well. Besides that, it turns out that generally planets with hydrogen atmosphere might even favour life better. With current observation methods, detecting those planets might be more simple than finding planets with an Earth-like atmosphere. The article also shows what kind of marks life would leave on such atmospheres.

It is an experiment that Pajusalu came up with when he was at MIT for his postdoctoral studies. “Although the end result is simple, developing and carrying out the experiment actually took about three years,” he stated. It is a new type of experiment and was, in turn, made possible thanks to the sensor created by the MIT work group, including Pajusalu. Nature has published an article about the experiment using the sensor.

Assistant Director of Tartu Observatory Anu Noorma says that astrobiology is a modern emerging field of research and it is very important for Estonia to be able to contribute to forefront science. Estonia’s participation in European Space Agency’s (ESA) research programme has enabled to create a new astrobiology research area at the University of Tartu.

In ESA’s F-class mission, Comet Interceptor, Pajusalu is directing the development of the Estonian instrument. The goal of the mission is to intercept a comet that is entering the Solar System for the very first time. ARIEL, the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey, includes stellar physicians Anna Aret and Mihkel Kama as members of the research group. Both missions are scheduled to launch in 2028.

These are the first science missions where Estonia gets a chance to proudly present our space research and technology. Until these missions, we could only participate in missions with long preparation time and through the teams of other ESA member states.

Read the article from Research in Estonia webpage

More information:
Mihkel Pajusalu, Senior Research Fellow in Space Technology at Tartu Observatory, University of Tartu, +372 5381 5711, mihkel.pajusalu [ät] ut.ee

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