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Chances of finding extraterrestrial life increased by 2,000 times

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The expansion of the detectable signature of methane through the use of computers has increased the potential for finding extraterrestrial life by at least 2,000 times. Dr. Sergei Yurchenko from the University College London Department of Physics and Astronomy, Professor Jonathan Tennyson from the University College London Department of Physics and Astronomy, and colleagues at the University of New South Wales have expanded the detectable limits of methane to 1,220 degrees Celsius. The development was reported in the June 16, 2014, edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Methane is a simple organic gas that is known to be a metabolite and a product of metabolism for many forms of life that exist on Earth. The detection of potential life on other planets and moons at extreme distances from Earth is done by the examination of the frequencies of light reflected from a subject planet or moon. The spread of frequencies of light reflected indicates the nature of the atmosphere on the planet that is being inspected and indicates the potential for life to exist on another world.

The researchers used supercomputers at the Distributed Research Advanced Computing project at the University of Cambridge to expand the detectable spectroscopic lines emitted by methane to 10 billion. The radiation that is detectable from a molecule changes slightly with temperature. Increasing the range of temperatures that methane can be detected at increases the possibility of finding methane by at least 2,000 times. Finding methane more easily means that finding life on other planets is easier.

The technique was tested and proven to work with low temperature stars and with high temperature stars. The detection program is simply uploaded to existing equipment at minimal cost. Methane is a product of plant and bacterial life. Most scientists expect to find some form of simple life by detecting methane on a world that has water, oxygen, and a rocky crust.

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