Science Research at UvA-VU: Are We Alone?

12 May 2015

‘It’s one of the big questions for humanity. Is life on earth unique? And if there are other forms of life out there, are they simple or complex? It’s long-term research, but I would love to find answers to those questions during my career,’ says Carsten Dominik, professor of astronomy at the UvA.

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Dominik is one of the initiators of the Are We Alone? collaboration. 'The UvA and VU University Amsterdam wanted to work together more in the fields of physics and astronomy,' says Dominik. And in the next few years, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON) will be moving to Amsterdam. ‘This will create a scientific cluster which gives us a good launch pad for researching this question.’

Exoplanets 

Based at the Anton Pannekoek Institute for astronomy, Dominik and his colleagues work to answer questions about the emergence of exoplanets – planets in solar systems other than our own. This includes making observations of protoplanetary disks which form around young stars and which can go on to develop into planetary systems. He is involved in the new SPHERE telescope in Chile, for example. ‘The telescope dims the light of the star itself so that we can better observe gas giants and disks alongside the star. We've already seen a great spiral structure in a disk which indicates the presence of a terrestrial planet.’

MWC758

Disk surrounding the star MWC758, captured with SPHERE. From: Benisty et al, 2015 (in preparation)

He’s also doing scientific modelling research into exoplanet formation, partly in collaboration with Vidi researcher Chris Ormel at the UvA, and a colleague at SRON. And he’s working with a colleague at VU University Amsterdam, Wim van Westrenen, who is studying rock formation. ‘He mixes materials and subjects them to high pressure and temperatures to find out what elements were required for the formation of the earth and moon. We expect this to deliver exciting results in terms of exoplanets too.’ Another VU group is doing research into the earth’s atmosphere, which might also be relevant to exoplanets.

Various points of entry 

All of that expertise offers various points of entry for research into extra-terrestrial life. ‘As astronomers, we try to find places in our galaxy where liquid water exists, because biologists have told us that this is a precondition for life,’ says Dominik. ‘There are moons where ice has been observed, for instance, which may have water underneath. For exoplanets, the distance to a star is important, as that determines whether or not conditions are suitable for sustaining life. Eventually, Dominik also wants to use spectral information to determine the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere of exoplanets, for example. This wouldn’t prove the existence of life, he says, but it’s an indicator.

A year ago, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) funded a PhD candidate who is dividing his time between the VU and UvA and trying to ascertain the composition of exoplanets. Dominik is currently still working on bringing in biologists and chemists, before the official launch of Are We Alone? in the autumn. 

Text: Jeroen Scharroo

Published by  Faculty of Science