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The Darwin Mission

As amazing as today’s exoplanet search efforts are, future missions will be even more incredible. Among the most exciting is the Darwin mission, a system of space-based telescopes. Darwin is being built by the European Space Agency and will be launched in 2015, at the earliest. Not only are the mission’s objectives impressive, but the system itself will be a superior feat of engineering.

Darwin will study 1,000 stars as it searches for other worlds. To learn about the planets’ atmospheres, Darwin will collect light in mid-infrared wavelengths. It’s a bit of space-based detective work. On Earth, we know that plants release oxygen into the atmosphere, while animals release gases like methane. These gases absorb specifi c wavelengths of infrared light. Therefore, by analyzing the infrared light from another planet, Darwin can determine whether it’s home to alien life. In addition, the system will be the first to photograph small rocky exoplanets.

Darwin, which will be positioned beyond the moon, will have some special technical features. It will consist of four or fi ve telescopes separately mounted on several spacecraft arranged in a precise formation. The light collected by the telescopes will be sent to a processing hub in the center of the array. Here, one of Darwin’s most magical feats will take place. The reason we can’t normally photograph far-off planets is because their stars are so bright. They literally outshine everything else. Darwin’s central hub will be able to cancel out the star light it collects. That will leave only the light from the planet, which can then be studied.

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