Another ‘space win’ for Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Another ‘space win’ for Sri Lanka

Artist’s impression of an exoplanet
Artist’s impression of an exoplanet

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the two Sri Lankans (Tharindu Dayaratne and Dulani Chamika), whose efforts led to the deployment of Raavana-1, the country’s first-ever satellite. Another feather has just been added to this cap, in the form of several young Sri Lankan astronomers identifying two new Sub-Neptune sized ‘Exoplanets’ - planets that lie outside our solar system.

This is yet another ‘first’ for Sri Lanka in the space field and is a serendipitous coincidence that one achievement has come after another. In a report on this feat, India’s The Hindu newspaper said this was “a rare feat in the study of stars and galaxies that puts Sri Lanka in a special league”. This is indeed something that Sri Lankans can be proud of. Incidentally, Indian scientists succeeded in this mission only last year, when they spotted a distant planet much larger than the Earth.

The Sri Lankan team of astronomers deserves to be applauded for their accomplishment, which involved combing through several thousand files of data captured by the NASA Kepler/K2 mission over the last decade. “It was both effort and chance,” says Mahesh Herath, the 28-year-old scientist and astronomer who led the team at the Astronomy division of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies. “We found that the two exoplanets are slightly larger than the Earth. They could be used for a study on early planet formation.”

At this triumphant moment, one should remember with gratitude the adopted son of Sri Lanka after whom the institute is named – Sir Arthur C Clarke, a visionary who predicted interstellar space travel in his acclaimed books. Once the Kepler/K2 spacecraft collects data, it is transmitted to the NASA archives and the data is published online and made available to the public. But the fact is, the spacecraft collects so much data that it needs more scientists to analyse them. Kepler has looked at nearly 600,000 stars over a decade and around 3,000 had been found to host at least one exoplanets.

The team also has another achievement to its credit - they had to come up with a computer program to specifically search for probable exoplanets among more than 30,000 dataset files. They succeeded in their quest after nearly a year’s hard work. They were helped in their effort by 11 scientists from around the world – astronomy is very much an international effort and space belongs to all nations. The team’s research paper was published last month in the highly-regarded Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a UK-based scientific journal.

The deployment of the satellite and the discovery of two exoplanets by young Sri Lankan scientists would hopefully lead to a resurgence in interest in space science and astronomy among Sri Lankan schoolchildren and university students. Astronomy should be part of the drive to popularise STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in schools.

Any child who looks at the night sky through a powerful telescope would inherit a lifelong love for the stars. At least some of them would turn out to be astronomers when they grow up. Astronomy and space science have exciting possibilities and opportunities, from designing robotic space probes to engineering propulsion systems for future spacecraft capable of intergalactic travel.

That is why the mission of these intrepid scientists will not end anytime soon. There are plenty more exoplanets waiting to be discovered across the galaxies, some of which may be habitable or may harbour life. The total known exoplanet count is a little over 4,000 at present, which equates to just 0.5 % of the data available. In other words, there is a dearth of scientists to sift through this massive treasure trove of astronomical data that can reveal possibly thousands more exoplanets near and far.

Scientists hunting for alien planets will get a boost when the all-new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) eventually launches to complement the existing Hubble Space Telescope. The JWST will have a mirror more than three times wider than Hubble’s, and more than 100 times Hubble’s sensitivity. It will unfold and begin transmitting data 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, beyond the reach of repair missions should any of its advanced technologies malfunction. The JWST launch was delayed from October 2018 to June 2019. Now, because of issues in testing and integrating the telescope’s components, this date has been pushed back further. But once it is literally up in the air and operational, there will be a much larger workload – possibly decades of extra work - for the scientists.

Finding exoplanets, (one of my favourite topics, by the way) by whatever means is very important, as new studies suggest that some of them may even harbour better conditions for life than Earth itself. Researchers recently used NASA-developed software called ROCKE-3D to simulate ocean circulation and climates on different types of exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system. Telescopes can help determine what the conditions might be like on exoplanets, but that data also has to be applied to models of potential climates and evolution that takes place on planets different from our own. Combined, data and models can inform scientists as to which planets could host life, intelligent, microbial or somewhere in-between.

Oceanic life on Earth depends on an upward flow, or upwelling, which moves nutrients from the dark depths to sunlit portions where photosynthetic life thrives. More upwelling means more nutrient resupply, which means more biological activity.

A research team used the software to identify which planets would have the most efficient upwelling and thus offer particularly hospitable oceans.

There could even be all-water worlds with little or no land, as depicted in Christopher Nolan’s seminal movie “Interstellar”.

The search for extra-terrestrial life has largely involved seeking out exoplanets within the habitable zone of the stars they orbit, existing at just the right distance for a surface temperature that can support liquid water on the surface.

It would be important to find habitable exoplanets that are near the Earth in cosmic terms, should the need arise for mankind to leave Planet Earth.

Several leading scientists including the late Stephen Hawking have advocated this approach, due to fears over climate change or a man-made disaster such as a nuclear war.

For example, scientists recently found three planets orbiting a star just 12 Light Years away (a light year being the distance light travels in a year at 299,792,458 metres per second). Even that is a tall order with the speeds we are capable of at present, but there is no telling what the future might hold in terms of space travel and propulsion, a la Star Trek. Yes, exoplanets will come in handy when we finally ‘boldly go where no Man has gone before.’