World’s Largest Telescope to Search for Planets With Magnetic Fields

The search is on.

The largest radio telescope in the world, the Chinese FAST radio telescope, will search for planets with magnetic fields similar to that of Earth, at distances of up to 100 light-years from the Solar System.

An international group of astronomers has published an ambitious observation plan using the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in the academic journal Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Li Di, a researcher at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and chief scientist at FAST, stresses that habitable planets must not only have water, a suitable temperature, and atmosphere, but also a magnetic field that maintains the atmosphere around the planet and protects possible lifeforms on the planet from cosmic rays.

Artists rendering of how Earth's magnetic field works. Shutterstock.
Shutterstock.

“The earth’s magnetic field protects life from cosmic rays. There is a scientific bug in the sci-fi blockbuster ‘The Wandering Earth,’ that is, the earth stops rotating. If that happens, the magnetic field would disappear. Without the protection of the magnetic field, the earth’s atmosphere would be blown off by the solar wind. As a result, humans and most living things would be exposed to the harsh cosmic environment and unable to survive,” explained Li in a statement.

Astronomers have been looking for radio signals from exoplanets, but they have not been discovered yet.

As of today, around 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered in the universe.

In our solar system, there are six magnetized planets with a planetary-scale magnetic field: Mercury, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

“In our solar system, magnetized planets are strong radio sources. Radio detection of exoplanets aims at the physical characterization of exoplanets and comparative studies with solar system planets,” explained Philippe Zarka, an astronomer from the Paris Observatory.

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“We want to try FAST, which is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, if we can first detect the radiation from an exoplanet and confirm its magnetic field, it would be a very important discovery,” Li revealed.

Astronomers have searched for radio signals from exoplanets, but have so far not found anything.

But things are about to change.

“We want to try with FAST, which is the world’s most sensitive radio telescope. If we can for the first time detect the radio radiation of an exoplanet and confirm its magnetic field, it would be a very important discovery,” Li revealed.

“If this observation window is opened, we would be able to study the laws of the magnetic fields of exoplanets and whether they are habitable in another aspect,” he said.

To date, most of the planets we know of in the universe have been discovered by the ‘legendary’ Kepler Space Telescope, which has found exoplanets at distances of more than 500 light-years away from Earth.

Image of potentially habitable exoplanets. Image Credit: A Mendez/PHL.
Image of potentially habitable exoplanets. Image Credit: A Mendez/PHL.

But astronomers around the world are putting a great deal in an effort to search for new alien worlds.

In 2018, NASA launched its newest planet-hunting telescope the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which searches the cosmos for exoplanets closer to Earth.

“If TESS could find a large number of exoplanets, and we also track them, the possibility of discovering exoplanets with magnetic fields will increase,” Li said.

“We are looking for exoplanets within 100 light-years from Earth. Once such planets are found, it would be favorable for scientists to conduct a thorough study of them, and there is even a possibility for interstellar migration.”