Chinese astronomers are looking for an Earth 2.0 to colonise, as per a May announcement from Chinese state media.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences has requested funding to construct and launch a massive telescope capable of spotting hospitable space bodies lightyears away and which may hold the key to off-planet expansion.
The ambitious project, dubbed Closely Habitable Exoplanet Survey (CHES) involves launching a 1.2-metre aperture telescopic device about 1.5 million kilometres into outer space, where it will remain for half a decade in search of an Earth analogue.
The CHES telescope will occupy a region of space called the L2 Lagrange Point. These are areas where satellites – in this case, the CHES project telescope – rotate around the sun at the same speed and distance our home planet completes a solar cycle.
Once settled into position, CHES will begin scanning the more than 100 stars that share similar characteristics to the sun inside a staggeringly vast 33 light-year radius.
Along with his team, Ji Jianghui, an astronomer working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and senior researcher for CHES, is looking to spot any Earth-sized exoplanets that orbit their home stars at a similar distance and rate as our own.
These are good indicators that these planets may resemble Earth, complete with water, an atmosphere and perhaps most tantalisingly, life.
Speaking with the press, Ji said that discovering planets with environments fit for habitation would be a significant breakthrough for humankind. Ji and his team are hopeful they will identify around 50 examples of exoplanets worth investigating further and perhaps even visiting.
NASA’s current technique of identifying other worlds, the transit method, has been used to identify exoplanets since 1999 and is responsible for spotting 3 854 out of 5 030 known exoplanets.
However, the transit method is not without its flaws. It involves focusing on the galactic centre and waiting for celestial bodies to pass in front of that mark before a measurement can be recorded.
The technique, while effective at establishing the size of the exoplanet, is not able to give astronomers insight into the planet’s mass and orbit speed.
The CHES project could theoretically identify planets faster by way of a method called astrometry. Using astrometry, scientists would fix their gaze upon stars and look for the tell-tale “wobbles” they give off whenever the gravitational pull of a nearby planet affects them.
By measuring the magnitude of every wobble, scientists can accurately predict the size, pathing and mass of each exoplanet effectively. The technique is still in its infancy and has received some criticism in the past.
In 1963, Peter van de Kamp, an astronomer affiliated with Swarthmore College in the US, claimed to have identified an exoplanet orbiting Barnard’s Star, using a similar method. However, further examinations found his discovery was a false positive resulting from faulty equipment.
At this point, Ji and his research team are still in the preliminary phases of their project. If greenlit, the CHES telescope could receive funding as early as 2026. A formal decision regarding CHES will be made sometime in June, according to the digital publication, Live Sciences.