Watch this Brief History of the Search for an Earthlike Exoplanet

A trip inside the “holy grail” of exoplanet research.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 20 2016, 2:15pm

An artist imagining of Kepler-62f, a potentially habitable exoplanet discovered using data transmitted by the Kepler craft. Image: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

Credit: The Search for Earth Proxima from Speculative Films on Vimeo

For centuries, people have speculated that Earth might not be the only habitable world in the universe. But it wasn't until the 1990s that this longstanding hunch finally began to be empirically validated. As of summer 2016, over 3,200 exoplanets have been confirmed to exist, with thousands more candidates in line to be vetted. Soon, astronomers hope, we will stumble across a small rocky world, with oceans and an atmosphere, much like our own.

This momentous quest to find another Earth is celebrated in "The Search for Earth Proxima," a short film released by San Francisco-based Speculative Films on Wednesday morning. The short includes the perspectives of exoplanet experts, along with stunning astronomical footage and concept animations of farflung planets. The crew even visited the high-altitude Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, perched at 16,500 feet above sea level, to capture timelapses of the southern skies.

With a run time of just under ten minutes, "The Search for Earth Proxima" covers the developments that enabled scientists to glimpse at tantalizing worlds beyond our own, some of which may be habitable, as well as a look towards the future of the field.

"20 years ago, the idea of detecting exoplanets was considered to be totally science fiction, and not worthy of a professional astronomer," said Ruslan Belikov, an astrophysicist based at NASA's Ames Research Center, in the short. "Now, exoplanet [research] is one of the hottest fields in astronomy, and it's still growing."

With next-generation observatories like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) currently in the works, the field is not likely to slow down. Given the impressive haul of its first 20 years, imagine where it's headed next.