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Exploring Shortcuts for the Characterization of the Atmospheres of Planets similar to Earth

Project description

Research aims to unravel the make-up of Earth-like exoplanets

The question of whether there is life beyond our solar system has recently taken a giant leap forward with the detection of several nearby Earth-like exoplanets. Finding exoplanets with atmospheres and identifying their atmospheric composition is a crucial step in pinpointing places with signs of life. Ground- and space-based observations such as those provided by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2021 are expected to characterise for the first time the atmosphere of such exoplanets. Using innovative observing techniques and instruments, the EU-funded ESCAPE project plans to accelerate the identification of the atmospheric make-up of Earth-like exoplanets with existing ground- and space-based telescopes.


The question of whether or not there is life elsewhere in the Universe has recently taken a giant leap forward with the detection of several nearby Earth-sized, temperate exoplanets. Future ground and space-based telescopes such as the European-Extremely Large Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope and LUVOIR will theoretically be able to perform the first characterization of the atmosphere of these potentially habitable planets. Yet, the implementation of these telescopes is either risky, far in the future, or both. The ESCAPE project aims to investigate possible shortcuts for the characterization of the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets with existing ground and space-based telescopes, thanks to innovative combinations of observing techniques and instruments. The first objective is to investigate the possibility to detect and characterize an atmosphere around the recently discovered planet Proxima b – the closest exoplanet from us – with the high-contrast/high-resolution technique, using an adaptive optics system coupled to a high-resolution spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope. The second objective of the project is to calculate whether or not the signature (absorption lines) of a thick hydrogen/helium envelope around a habitable planet can be detected by (i) the Hubble Space Telescope and/or (ii) high-precision spectrographs mounted on ground-based telescopes. The general strategy is to use a sophisticated Global Climate Model – previously co-developed and used by the fellow – in combination with numerical models of exoplanet’s observability – developed at the University of Geneva, the host institution – to assess the possibility to make the first observations of potentially habitable planets. This project will provide pathfinder results that will further be used (1) to propose original observations of Earth-like exoplanets with existing telescopes and (2) to influence the development of the next generation of giant telescopes and their instruments.


Net EU contribution
€ 191 149,44
1211 Geneve

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Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera Région lémanique Genève
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 191 149,44