CSUN Observatory Center

Physics and Astronomy


Is There Life on Other Planets?

The search for life beyond our solar system continues

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A man smiles as he uses a radio

Does life exist outside of planet Earth? Many believe it does. Professors Damian Christian, Deqing Ren and Luca Ricci of the Department of Physics and Astronomy hope to find out.

To better understand how stars and planets form, Dr. Ricci is using world-class telescopes and the latest in radio technology, specifically the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), currently the largest radio telescope in the world. Drs. Christian and Ren are using direct imaging, which consists of capturing images of exoplanets directly by searching for the light reflected from a planet’s atmosphere at infrared wavelengths. Discovering new planets around nearby stars may lead to habitable planets, which could lead to the answer to one of today’s biggest mysteries: Is there life on other planets?

Adaptive optics is the future of astronomy — a new technology that enables astronomers to obtain sharper, more accurate images of stars in the night sky than ever before from ground-based telescopes. Dr. Ren is developing two new instruments for the direct imaging of exoplanets, a high-contrast stellar coronagraph and a simultaneous, three-dimensional-imaging spectroscope. No research group in the world has ever achieved such a scientific goal.

CSUN Astronomy faculty and students also use the latest space-based technology, such as three of NASA’s telescopes known as the “Great Observatories,” to search for and characterize planets and their host stars: the Hubble Space Telescope, the first major optical telescope to be placed in space; Chandra X-ray Observatory, a satellite in orbit around the Earth and sensitive to X-ray sources 100 times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope; and in the future, the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and scheduled for launch into space in 2021. The Webb is expected to fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe.

Finding and understanding exoplanets is one of the most important research topics in science. If exoplanets are located in habitable zones and contain water, they could support life.