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Finding our alien neighbours

Professor Don Pollacco doesn't mince his words when it comes to Kepler, the space observatory launched by NASA to discover Earth-like planets.

By Josie Gurney-Read, November 2015

Don PollaccoWhile the Kepler space telescope has discovered more than 4,000 planets since its launch in 2009, Professor Don Pollacco warns that the word 'planet' should be used with caution, as all the Kepler candidates for the so-called ‘Earth-2’ are in fact "far too faint even to prove they are planets".

Instead, he says, “NASA invented another term, called ‘validated planets’ – which means that they probably are planets but they can’t prove it.

“Kepler has been good, but it hasn’t done what it said on the tin. PLATO will.”

PLATO – or Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars – is Europe’s answer to the NASA space observatory, and will attempt to locate rocky, habitable planets, ie orbiting stars outside our solar system.

Expected to launch in 2024, PLATO will use 34 separate small telescopes and cameras to scan half the sky, and there are hopes that the mission could lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

For Professor Pollacco, who heads up PLATO’s science team, this hope is a genuine one: “[The mission] means we will be able to look for life in 10 years,” he says. “It’s really exciting. Ten years ago, you’d have probably thought I was a nutter for saying this. Five hundred years ago you would have locked me up.”

Professor Pollacco says that by the time the current generation of primary-age children leave school, finding alien life could be a real possibility.

“If you think about what the discovery of intelligent life might do, what it would mean; well you can imagine the theologians would be writing away, the biologists would find it very interesting and so would astronomers. The discovery of life would affect most of what we do.

However, whether ‘aliens’ would communicate with us if we found them, is another matter. “How long have we been technically capable for,” Don asks. “We’ve had radio for 150 years, there have been humans for two million years, the Earth is four billion years old, and the universe is 14 billion years.

“If there is another civilisation out there, the likelihood is that they are either going to be bugs on the floor, or they are a lot more advanced than us.

“Would they even be bothered speaking to us,” he continues. “We may be the equivalent of bugs to them. Would we even be able to talk to them?

“You can imagine how advanced we would be in a million years, that’s why this stuff about UFOs is rubbish. I don’t believe any of it.

“Any civilisation that could come here would be so far advanced from us, they might even be studying us; they wouldn’t be coming in flying saucers,” he adds.

StarsFinding out whether intelligent life does exist beyond planet Earth, is a topic that has held public interest. And PLATO could be the mission to find the answer.

Selected by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Science Programme Committee as part of its Cosmic Vision Programme, the mission has support from the UK Government, which in 2014 pledged £25 million to the project.

When launched, the observatory will find, study and characterise rocky planets, both bigger and smaller than the Earth, allowing scientists to undertake other observations, with other telescopes.

“The [planets] will be the prized objects that you can look for life on,” Professor Pollacco tells me. “There has been no Kepler planet that we have been able to do anything with in terms of its atmosphere. But the PLATO planets will be nearby and we will.”

“Right now we’ve gone through a definition phase with PLATO. We came up with a concept and then had to prove that we can do it for the budget and without it taking 20 or 30 years.

“Every nut and bolt on the spacecraft has been looked at in great detail,” he continues. “We’ve just submitted a small forest of documentation, and there’s been a huge amount of effort to get this far.

“PLATO was originally rejected two years ago, because it didn’t look ambitious. That’s because Kepler was flying. But it’s now obvious what it can do. There could still be problems of course, and many space missions have overrun. PLATO won’t though. It can’t.”

Thinking about our alien neighbours, Professor Pollacco is open minded: “We could be very alone,” he says, “or there could be civilisations right next to us that we can’t communicate with. They will communicate with us when they want to though.”

But with a probable nine years to wait until take off, it’s going to be a little while yet before we find ET.

Image: Star by Tom Hall (via Flickr)