Space agencies around the world have made great strides in the search for alien worlds lately. NASA, in particular, discovered ten potentially habitable exoplanets just last year with a little help from the Kepler space telescope. While most new exoplanets are not believed to support life or are found to be the complete opposite of habitable, the search for exoplanets continues in the hope that at least one might contain alien life. Or at least some natural resources we can pillage. Up until now, all of the planets we have discovered have been in our own neck of the cosmos: the Milky Way galaxy. However, in a groundbreaking discovery, astrophysicists from the University of Oklahoma have announced they’ve found evidence of the first known planets outside of our galaxy. What could this discovery hold for the future of astronomy?
For now, likely not much. The planets are found some 3.8 billion light years away, meaning they’re much too far away for us to know much more about them – at least in our lifetime. The planets were found using a phenomenon known as gravitational microlensing which occurs when light traveling through space is ‘bent’ by immense masses such as clusters of galaxies. When the researchers were studying a distant quasar known as RX J1131-1231, they discovered light signatures which could only be explained by the presence of four exoplanets ranging in size from nearly that of our Moon to that of Jupiter.
One of the astronomers behind the discovery, OU postdoctoral researcher Eduardo Guerras, says that while the planets are too far away to really add much to our knowledge of space, at least we now know how to harness gravitational microlensing in the search for alien worlds:
This is an example of how powerful the techniques of analysis of extragalactic microlensing can be. This galaxy is located 3.8 billion light years away, and there is not the slightest chance of observing these planets directly, not even with the best telescope one can imagine in a science fiction scenario. However, we are able to study them, unveil their presence and even have an idea of their masses. This is very cool science.
Very cool science indeed. You know what would be even cooler science? Figuring out a way to reach one of these exoplanets someday and ensure the human race will after the Earth has been reduced to a radioactive lump of coal by a few spiteful old men. When are we going to make that happen?