Chile scans the skies for signs of life

A new astrobiology program will focus on the study of life outside our planet.

Stars being born, and quite possibly planets like ours. Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr
Stars being born, and quite possibly planets like ours. Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

As the European Southern Observatory (ESO) puts the finishing touches on the plans for its Extremely Large Telescope, Chile is also ramping up plans to expand its astronomical program. In a recent press conference, the Center for Astrophysics and Related Technologies (CATA) announced its plans to create a new astrobiology program.

The program is an important new step in an already ongoing project focused on the search for extrasolar planets, one in which CATA has had a fair amount of success: their scientists have found more than 20 of the 400 newly discovered planets.

CATA director María Teresa Ruiz highlighted the importance of the project at a time when Chile is making leaps in its astronomical agenda. “Five years ago we had another project, extrasolar and exoplanets weren’t an issue. But today it’s very important and there are people working on this in all the universities in Chile. In addition we have new instruments that can help us study the universe such as telescopes and antennas,” she said.

One such tool in the search for life elsewhere is the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which began operating at the end of last year and is the foremost telescope of its kind in the world. As part of the project CATA will be allocating funds for Chilean astronomers to have access to resources such as ALMA. Ruiz explained that Chilean astronomers would be able to study the chemical makeup of the universe and determine the places that life may be possible or analyze different chemicals that don’t exist on Earth. She referenced carbon 60 as an example of the kind of pioneering work that could give Chile an important edge in both science and business: a chemical compound discovered in a dying star in the Magellanic Galaxy that was copied and fabricated by scientists. “Today,” she said, “it’s part of many high tech devices.”

CATA is made up of nearly 80% of Chile’s astronomers hailing from its most prestigious universities, including Universidad Católica, Universidad de Chile and Universidad de Concepción.