Equally important, Wagner will be looking for these planets in close proximity to their stars to potentially harbor life. Physicists call this the “habitable zone.” And it’s comparatively tiny.
Wagner said this is the combination of distance from the sun and atmospheric conditions to support liquid water on a solid planet.
Wagner is not alone in this quest.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2018 published the Exoplanet Science Strategy, a blueprint for harnessing the world’s astronomical resources to search for potentially habitable planets like ours.
“For generations, humans have looked up at the stars and wondered whether we are alone,” the academy’s lead author, Aaron Gronstal, wrote.
“Wonder at this very question unites us. The Exoplanet Science Strategy describes how researchers can aim to address this question in a generation. It is unknown whether this generation will be the first to learn that life is common throughout the galaxy or the first to discern hints of a cosmic lonesomeness. What we do know is that we can be the first with the technological and scientific ability to answer the question, if we so choose.”
UC’s Sitko has worked with his former student on several research projects, including ongoing studies of how planets form. Sitko said one prevailing theory is that newly formed stars spin. Cosmic dust surrounding them gathers at the sun’s equator in a planet-forming disk that astronomers can detect from Earth.
Knowing how to identify these disks can help astronomers predict where they might find exoplanets, Sitko said.
“You can use the structures of these disks as a diagnostic tool: ‘There should be a planet right about here,’” he said.