The search for alien life may have received an important boost from scientists who have designed a new tool that can more effectively detect methane on other planets.
Since living things produce the vast majority of the methane
found on Earth, detecting the chemical compound on other planets
would be the clearest, possibly easiest way to pinpoint worlds
hospitable to extraterrestrial life. With the new model in hand,
astronomers are hoping the search for methane becomes much
easier, even on planets with much higher temperatures than Earth.
The new spectrum was designed by scientists at University College
London and the University of New South Wales in Sydney,
Australia. This new model is capable of detecting whether or not
methane is absorbing light at nearly 10 billion different
spectroscopic lines – a range that’s 2,000 times larger than
previous methane spectra. With each line composed of a different
color, astronomers will be able to gather much more detailed
information about methane density across a wide variety of
Additionally, the new methane spectrum can identify the molecule
at temperatures as high as 2,228 degrees Fahrenheit (1,220
“Current models of methane are incomplete, leading to a
severe underestimation of methane levels on planets,”
Professor Jonathan Tennyson, who co-authored the report on the
tool, said to the Daily Mail.
“We anticipate our new model will have a big impact on the
future study of planets and ‘cool’ stars external to our solar
system, potentially helping scientists identify signs of
According to Space.com, the scientists had to recruit some of the
United Kingdom’s most powerful supercomputers in order to develop
the model, but their work has already yielded results in at least
one case. A planet outside our solar system, known as “hot
Jupiter” HD 189733b, was analyzed and found to house 20 times
more methane than previously thought. The planet’s temperature
rises up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning life is unlikely to
be there, but the Tennyson and his colleagues think similar
surveys of other planets could yield different results.
“We’ve probably been waiting for this paper for 10 or 20
years,” said MIT astrophysicist and exoplanet hunter Sara
Seager to Space.com, referring to the work of Tennyson’s team.
Meanwhile, lead author Dr. Sergei Yurchenko believes the new
model could be expanded yet again to detect methane at even
“The comprehensive spectrum we have created has only been
possible with the astonishing power of modern supercomputers
which are needed for the billions of lines required for the
modeling,” he said, according to the Daily Mail.
“We are thrilled to have used this technology to
significantly advance beyond previous models available for
researchers studying potential life on astronomical objects, and
we are eager to see what our new spectrum helps them