To find life on other worlds, NASA will look at the light of a star

A NASA probe rocket will observe a nearby star to learn how starlight affects the atmospheres of exoplanets, key information in the search for life in the cosmos.

Using an updated instrument first launched in 2019, the mission has a new target: Procyon A, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor.

SISTINE-2 (Suborbital Imaging Spectrograph for Transition region Irradiance from Nearby Exoplanet host stars), will have its first chance to be launched from the White Sands missile range in New Mexico on November 8.

Answering the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is fraught with technical challenges. We still cannot travel to planets around other stars, called exoplanets, to see for ourselves. Our telescopes are also not powerful enough to see their surfaces.

Instead, astronomers look at the atmosphere of an exoplanet, searching it for traces of chemicals associated with life. Water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other so-called biomarkers produce unique light patterns that telescopes can detect from afar. But to interpret them correctly, astronomers must look at the planet’s star.

"The interaction between the planet’s atmosphere and the host star’s ultraviolet light determines which gases serve as the best biomarkers."Kevin France, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder and principal investigator on the mission, said in a statement.

Some ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths, for example, can break down carbon dioxide, releasing a single oxygen atom to combine with others to form molecular oxygen (made up of two oxygen atoms) or ozone (made up of three). . Stars that shed enough light can create spurious biomarkers on their planets, sending astronomers looking in the wrong places.

The SISTINE team aims to avoid this dilemma by creating a guide to the wavelengths emitted by each type of star. There are many different types of stars and we do not yet have a complete picture of their light output or how it varies over time. Using a starlight catalog, scientists could estimate whether a detected biomarker is a potential sign of life or a false signal generated by annoying starlight.

On its next flight, SISTINE-2 will observe Procyon A, about 11.5 light years away. Procyon A is an F-type star, which is slightly larger, hotter, and brighter than our Sun. Although it has no known exoplanets, studying Procyon A can help us understand F-type stars and their exoplanets throughout the universe. .

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"Knowing the ultraviolet spectra of these stars will help us find the most promising stellar-planetary environments with future NASA observatories."France said.

SISTINE-2 comprises a telescope and an instrument known as a spectrograph, which splits light into its separate colors. SISTINE-2 will target ultraviolet light from 100 to 160 nanometers, a range that includes wavelengths known to produce false positive biomarkers. By combining their data with existing X-ray, extreme ultraviolet, and visible light observations of other F-type stars, the team hopes to assemble a reference spectrum that will help astronomers interpret biomarkers on exoplanets orbiting F-type stars.

SISTINE-2 is also testing hardware. Before its 2019 flight, the team applied an enhanced lithium fluoride optical coating to the instrument’s mirrors to improve their UV reflectivity. The results, some three years later, help assess whether this specialized coating may be suitable for larger and longer space missions.


As in its 2019 flight, the instrument will launch on a probe rocket, a small suborbital rocket that makes brief observations in space before falling back to Earth. Ascending to an estimated altitude of approximately 280 kilometers to access ultraviolet light that would otherwise be absorbed by our atmosphere, SISTINE-2 will observe Procyon A for about five minutes. The instrument will then fall back to Earth, parachuting down for recovery and restoration.

The team expects a soft landing to aid in a quick turnaround to be ready for its third launch in July 2022, from the Arnhem Space Center in Nhulunbuy, Australia. There, a reconditioned SISTINE instrument will observe Alpha Centauri stars A and B, type G and K, respectively, similar and slightly cooler than our Sun, and the stars closest to us.

This system is also home to Proxima Centauri, a cool red dwarf star orbited by the closest known exoplanet, Proxima B. These observations will add additional entries to the growing catalog of stars – small but critical steps in the search for life.


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