Darwin (ESA)

Darwin (ESA)

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Darwin was a suggested ESA
European Space Agency
The European Space Agency , established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 18 member states...

 Cornerstone mission which would have involved a constellation of four to nine spacecraft designed to directly detect Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

-like planets orbiting nearby stars
Extrasolar planet
An extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, is a planet outside the Solar System. A total of such planets have been identified as of . It is now known that a substantial fraction of stars have planets, including perhaps half of all Sun-like stars...

 and search for evidence of life on these planets
Extraterrestrial life
Extraterrestrial life is defined as life that does not originate from Earth...

. The most recent design envisaged three free-flying space telescopes, each three to four metres in diameter, flying in formation as an astronomical interferometer
Astronomical interferometer
An astronomical interferometer is an array of telescopes or mirror segments acting together to probe structures with higher resolution by means of interferometry....

. These telescopes were to redirect light from distant stars and planets to a fourth spacecraft, which would have contained the beam combiner, spectrometer
A spectrometer is an instrument used to measure properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, typically used in spectroscopic analysis to identify materials. The variable measured is most often the light's intensity but could also, for instance, be the polarization...

s, and cameras for the interferometer array, and which would have also acted as a communications hub. There was also an earlier design, called the "Robin Laurance configuration," which included six 1.5 metre telescopes, a beam combiner spacecraft, and a separate power and communications spacecraft.

The study of this proposed mission ended in 2007 with no further activities planned. To produce an image, the telescopes would have had to operate in formation with distances between the telescopes controlled to within a few micrometres, and the distance between the telescopes and receiver controlled to within about one nanometre. Several more detailed studies would have been needed to determine whether technology capable of such precision is actually feasible.


The space telescopes were to observe in the infrared
Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than that of visible light, measured from the nominal edge of visible red light at 0.74 micrometres , and extending conventionally to 300 µm...

 part of the electromagnetic spectrum
Electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. The "electromagnetic spectrum" of an object is the characteristic distribution of electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed by that particular object....

. As well as studying extrasolar planet
Extrasolar planet
An extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, is a planet outside the Solar System. A total of such planets have been identified as of . It is now known that a substantial fraction of stars have planets, including perhaps half of all Sun-like stars...

s, the telescopes would probably have been useful for general purpose imaging, producing very high resolution (i.e. milliarcsecond
Minute of arc
A minute of arc, arcminute, or minute of angle , is a unit of angular measurement equal to one sixtieth of one degree. In turn, a second of arc or arcsecond is one sixtieth of one minute of arc....

) infrared images, allowing detailed study of a variety of astrophysical processes.

The infrared region was chosen because in the visible spectrum an Earth-like planet is outshone by its star by a factor of a billion
1000000000 (number)
1,000,000,000 is the natural number following 999,999,999 and preceding 1,000,000,001.In scientific notation, it is written as 109....

. However, in the infrared, the difference is less by a few orders of magnitude. According to a 2000 ESA bulletin, all spacecraft components in the optical path would have to be passively cooled to 40 Kelvin to allow infrared observations to take place.

The planet search would have used a nulling interferometer configuration. In this system, phase shifts would be introduced into the three beams, so that light from the central star would suffer destructive interference and cancel itself out. However, light from any orbiting planets would not cancel out, as the planets are offset slightly from the star's position. This would allow planets to be detected, despite the much brighter signal from the star.

For planet detection, the telescopes would operate in an imaging mode. The detection of an Earth-like planet would require about 10 hours of observation in total, spread out over several months. A 2002 design which would have used 1.5 metre mirrors was expected to take about 100 hours to get a spectrum of a possibly Earth-like planet.

After the Darwin spacecraft detected a planet, a more detailed study of its atmosphere would have been made by taking an infrared spectrum of the planet. By analyzing this spectrum, the chemistry of the atmosphere could be determined, and this could provide evidence for life on the planet. The presence of oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 and water vapour in the atmosphere could be evidence for life. Oxygen is very reactive so if large amounts of oxygen exist in a planet's atmosphere some process such as photosynthesis must be continuously
producing it.

The presence of oxygen alone, however, is not conclusive evidence for life. Jupiter's moon Europa
Europa (moon)
Europa Slightly smaller than Earth's Moon, Europa is primarily made of silicate rock and probably has an iron core. It has a tenuous atmosphere composed primarily of oxygen. Its surface is composed of ice and is one of the smoothest in the Solar System. This surface is striated by cracks and...

, for example, has a tenuous oxygen atmosphere thought to be produced by radiolysis of water molecules. Numerical simulations
Numerical analysis
Numerical analysis is the study of algorithms that use numerical approximation for the problems of mathematical analysis ....

have shown that under proper conditions it is possible to build up an oxygen atmosphere via photolysis of carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

. Photolysis of water vapor and carbon dioxide produces hydroxyl ions and atomic oxygen, respectively, and these in turn produce oxygen in small concentrations, with hydrogen escaping into space. When O2 is produced by H2O photolysis at high altitude, hydrogenous compounds like H+, OH- and H2O are produced which attack very efficiently O3 and prevent its accumulation. The only known way to have a significant amount of O3 in the atmosphere is that O2 be produced at low altitude, e.g. by biological photosynthesis, and that little H2O gets to high altitudes where UV is present. For terrestrial planets, the simultaneous presence of O3 , H2O and CO2 in the atmosphere appears to be a reliable biosignature, and the Darwin spacecraft would have been capable of detecting these atmospheric components.

Candidate planets

Planet Gliese 581 d
Gliese 581 d
Gliese 581 d or Gl 581 d is an extrasolar planet orbiting the star Gliese 581 approximately 20 light-years away in the constellation of Libra. It is the third planet discovered in the system and the fifth in order from the star....

, discovered in 2007, was considered a good candidate for the Darwin project. It orbits within the theoretical habitable zone
Habitable zone
In astronomy and astrobiology, a habitable zone is an umbrella term for regions that are considered favourable to life. The concept is inferred from the empirical study of conditions favourable for Life on Earth...

 of its star, and scientists surmise that conditions on the planet may be conducive to supporting life.

Similar initiatives

The interferometric version of NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

's Terrestrial Planet Finder
Terrestrial Planet Finder
The Terrestrial Planet Finder was a proposed project by NASA to construct a system of telescopes for detecting extrasolar terrestrial planets. TPF was postponed several times and finally cancelled...

 mission is similar in concept to Darwin and also has very similar scientific aims. According to NASA's 2007 budget documentation, released on February 6, 2006, the project was deferred indefinitely, and in June 2011 the project was reported as cancelled. Antoine Labeyrie
Antoine Émile Henry Labeyrie
Antoine Émile Henry Labeyrie is a French astronomer and holds since 1991 the "Observational Astrophysics" chair at the Collège de France....

 has proposed a much larger space-based astronomical interferometer similar to Darwin, but with the individual telescopes positioned in a spherical arrangement and with an emphasis on interferometric imaging
Aperture synthesis
Aperture synthesis or synthesis imaging is a type of interferometry that mixes signals from a collection of telescopes to produce images having the same angular resolution as an instrument the size of the entire collection...

. This Hypertelescope project would be much more expensive and complex than the Darwin and TPF missions, involving many large free-flying spacecraft.

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