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Prof. Didier Queloz, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, will appear at Impact’24 as part of the Space thematic track. He has already achieved one astronomical breakthrough by discovering the first planet outside the solar system! Now he is investigating whether there is life beyond Earth.

You can observe space for years waiting…for that moment when, suddenly, something happens that opens a new window of opportunity for science. It was 1994 when Didier Queloz, then a doctoral student at the University of Geneva, working together with Professor Michel Mayor, began tracking Sun-like stars with the Elodie spectrograph. In 1995, in the orbit of one of the stars, Queloz spotted a planet, now called Dimidium (51 Pegasi b, unofficial name: Bellerofont) and located in the Pegasus constellation. This is the first planet outside the solar system ever revealed to humanity! At the time of its discovery, Queloz was only 29 years old and could not believe what he had uncovered.  The planet he spotted was a gas giant, with a mass of half that of Jupiter. Amazingly, it was orbiting its parent star – at a distance of barely 8 million kilometers, or twenty times closer than the radius of Earth’s orbit. This means that the temperature in its environment is roughly 1000 degrees C. This fact contradicted all the theories about the solar system and other planetary systems, which assumed that only rocky planets orbit near their parent star, while so-called gas giants, move farther away. Equally shocking was the fact that we might not be the dominant structure in the Universe.

– Nobody was expecting a planet back then, so it was a big surprise when I saw the data. I found the planet and said: ‘What’s going on?’ I thought something was wrong with the equipment, but after checking, I realized there really was something orbiting that star,” Prof Didier told The Straits Times in an interview conducted last year.

Can life outside the solar system exist?

The groundbreaking work done by Professors Queloz and Mayor sparked an increase in research on planets outside the solar system. In the three decades that followed, scientists have discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets. For their inspiring discovery, Professors Queloz and Mayor received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Trillions more planets beyond the solar system are predicted to exist in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Each new discovery raises more questions about how and why life originated on Earth and whether it exists elsewhere in the universe. It seems that most planetary systems are very different from ours. Planets don’t have to circle Sun-like stars at all, and a habitable planet doesn’t have to resemble Earth in the least. – I’m a bit upset by the fact that we have not found an Earth-like planet, so I’m helping to set up a new kind of equipment to detect these exoplanets. I would also like to establish a chemical pathway for paving the way for looking for life on other planets. I have teamed up with chemists, geochemists, biochemists and earth scientists to collaborate in this area,” Prof. Queloz told The Straits Times

Researching life on other planets might reveal origin of life on Earth

Together with scientists from the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University and the University of Chicago, Prof. Queloz has founded the Origins Federation to explore our understanding of the origin and early evolution of life and its place in the cosmos. Scientists participating in this initiative will study the chemical and physical processes of living organisms as well as define what conditions on other planets are life-friendly. Numerous prominent experts including Prof. Jack Szostak, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, have begun cooperating with the Federation. Scientists say that by studying life on other planets we can find out if its origins and evolution on Earth is a lucky coincidence or a natural result of how the universe works – in all its biological and ecological complexity. During his 25-year scientific career, Prof. Queloz has been involved in the development of astronomical equipment as well as detection algorithms with new approaches to observation. His appearance at Impact’24 will be part of the Space thematic track which will analyze the role of the space industry as a catalyst for technological innovation in sectors other sectors of the economy like telecommunications, navigation, environmental monitoring. The legal aspects of space exploration will also be covered at Impact’24.

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