In this special episode, prepared for their 50th anniversary, ESO is looking at one of the greatest quests that astronomers have pursued over the centuries: the search for life in the Universe. ESO has played an important role in this exciting journey. Scroll down for video
The ESO 3.6-metre telescope is one of the most successful planet hunters. Thanks to its HARPS spectrograph, astronomers have discovered more than 150 planets. Other important milestones in the study of exoplanets have been reached by the Very Large Telescope (VLT). For instance, a team of astronomers took the very first image of a planet outside the Solar System in 2004. Moreover, astronomers have been also able to analyse the atmosphere of a super-Earth, the planet GJ 1214b, which is 2.6 times larger than the Earth. They were able to characterise the atmosphere of this type of object for the first time and found that this planet is probably a hot and steamy world.
The next challenge for planet hunters is to spot Earth-like planets in the habitable zones around nearby stars. Hopefully, when the European Extremely Large Telescope is completed, it may also find evidence for biospheres on these planets: the first fingerprints of life outside the Solar System.