Could other life exist in the universe? Switzerland’s largest natural history museum currently houses an exhibition on exoplanets looking at this question. Spread over 1,000 m2 on four floors, it is the largest exhibition of its kind. The museum also offers guided tours in English at 15:30 on Sunday 6 and 20 December 2015 and Sunday 10 and 24 January 2016. Entry is free.
So what is an exoplanet?
An exoplanet is one which orbits a star other than our sun. Given the impossibility of life on scorchingly hot stars, their discovery is an essential first step to discovering whether other life exists in the universe.
Geneva pioneers exoplanets
Exoplanets are also something closely associated with Geneva. In 1995, while working at the University of Geneva’s astronomy department, Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor, two Swiss astrophysicists, were the first to discover an exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star like our sun. This famous exoplanet, called 51 Pegasi b, is located around 50 light years from earth – 450 trillion kilometres away, in the Pegasus constellation. Around the same size as Jupiter and closer to its sun than Mercury is to ours, it is unlikely to have an environment that could support life.
20 years ago we knew much about other stars in the universe but very little about planets outside our own solar system, says Michel.
There really could be life out there
In 2007, Michel and 10 other European scientists discovered the first extrasolar planet in a star’s habitable zone, where life could potentially exist. From a telescope in La Silla, Chile they found evidence of Gleise 581 c, a much smaller exoplanet 5.5 times the mass of the earth, around 20 light years away. Then in 2009 around the same star (Gleise 581), they found an even smaller planet Gleise 581 e. At around 1.9 times the mass of the earth, Gleise 581 e is much more likely to have liquid water on it.
The 3 minute video below by Swissinfo.ch explains how Michel detects objects so far from earth.
In this next video, museum staff and guests are interviewed about the exoplanet exhibition. The interviews are in French, however even if you can’t follow the conversations you’ll still get to see inside the museum and see some of the people behind the presentation, including Michel Mayor.
Geneva’s natural history museum is set in a park and has outside space open to the public. There is a cafeteria, however it is currently closed for renovation.
The exoplanet tour finishes with a big-screen film. The exhibition commemorates the 20th anniversary of the first discovery of an exoplanet in 1995 and runs until 4 April 2016. Entry to the museum is free.
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