Quantum Computing Enlisted in Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Astrophysicists will leverage a hybrid quantum platform to detect trace elements around a growing list of exoplanets.

Zapata Computing, the quantum software vendor, will cooperate with researchers at the University of Hull to apply quantum computing in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The collaboration will enable research using Orquestra, Zapata’s quantum workflow platform, to improve an application for detecting signs of life off the earth. The partners said they would release an analysis of their research after eight weeks. Additional quantum astrophysics collaboration between Zapata and the U.K. university are also planned. Boston-based Zapata’s platform handles both conventional and quantum workflows found in large enterprises.

The goal of the collaboration is to detect the presence of molecules and trace elements beneficial for generating life. “It’s probably a long-term project that will give us data for a lot of possible molecules,” David Benoit, senior lecturer in molecular physics and astrochemistry at the University of Hull, said in an interview.  Quantum computing is proving to be a valuable tool for making complex physics calculations required in astrophysics research.

David Benoit

Added Benoit: “Researchers at MIT have devised a list of possible molecules related to life, such as oxygen or nitrogen. However, even simple molecules have complex interactions that require very accurate calculations. And of course, the problem we have with astrophysics is that most of them cannot be analyzed directly, so you have to analyze the light and the spectral signatures that come in. You can only recognize and find a molecule if you actually know its spectral signature.”

MIT’s list includes more than 14,000 molecules indicating signs of life in the atmospheres of exoplanets. The physics of molecular rotation and vibration stimulated by infrared radiation emitted by neighboring stars is often ill defined. The E.A. Milne Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Hull aims to generate a database of detectable biological signatures using new computational models of molecular rotation and vibration, including models that exploit quantum computing.

Searching of exoplanets

As noted by Margherita Hack, the Italian astrophysicist: “Since the time of Epicurus, Plutarch and Lucretius Caro, humanity has addressed themselves the question of the existence of other life. Today we can at least say that there are exoplanets: their existence is a necessary – even if not sufficient – condition for the existence of other forms of life.”

More than 1,000 exoplanets are currently known, and the quest for possibly habitable planets and signs of life continues. The search focuses on the chemical components necessary for life to emerge.

Among the distinguishing properties are spectral signatures of chemicals found on planets rather than stars. Exoplanets and near-stellar planetesimals benefit from the combined spectral and polarization signals that provide insight into their physical characteristics.

“To identify a certain range of molecules, you need to have a fairly high level of accuracy in describing how the various atoms in the molecule interact with each other,” Benoit noted. “If you don’t do it correctly, you might get something that doesn’t really help; it’s kind of like a spring and its harmonic evolution depending on its spring constant – a bad estimation leads to the wrong dynamics.

“With quantum computing, you approach things differently, and obtain results that are often harder to compute on a classical computer. Hydrogen is easy to analyze, for example, but as the number of electrons increases, you will have to compromise if you are using standard computers. So, it’s a tough job. Quantum computers could probably give us a way to do the exact work, because we can simulate the exact Hamiltonian, and use the power of quantum computing to calculate the quantities we want,” said Benoit.

Liquid surface water is required to develop life as we know it. However, finding liquid water on the surfaces of exoplanets, especially on a potentially habitable Earth-size planet, is extremely challenging. Water vapor, which evaporates under the effect of stellar irradiation together with other associated molecules, must also be present in the atmosphere. These heated chemicals are essential for determining a planet’s habitability. Developing new ways to detect them on exoplanets is the first step toward finding extraterrestrial life.

“If you simply look at the numbers, we know that there is at least one planet for every star we see,” Benoit said. “But perhaps to spot life, you need to be in right place at the right time. I like to think that, yes, there is something out there. It could be just microbes, it could be just little organisms. We don’t know. But I think it’s worth looking.”


Orquestra (Source: Zapata Computing)

Quantum for astrophysics

Quantum computers promise extremely precise computations of characteristics governing atom interactions, or electron correlation, and might therefore aid scientists in their search for life’s basic components.

Benoit said the collaboration with Zapata advances the search for finding life beyond the Earth. “Orquestra allows building applications using Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum devices with the ability to take advantage of the more powerful quantum devices of the future,” he added.

Orquestra can be used to create quantum processes, execute them on a variety of quantum and conventional devices, then evaluate the results. The platform can also be used to produce new datasets, expedite data analysis and construct performant data models.

“Our software technologies are very abstracted from the hardware so that customers can start developing their quantum applications with Orquestra,” said Shane Rigby, who oversees Zapata Computing’s quantum applications business development. “After they have developed their algorithm, [users] can choose which hardware platform they are going to run it on.

“There will be a fusion of conventional and quantum computing, a hybrid approach, where quantum becomes an accelerator for running very complex work. So, the job could start out running in a conventional domain, and then, at some time over the course of that specific application, move into a quantum domain to perform challenging operations,” Rigby added.

The collaboration illustrates how quantum computing is emerging as a fundamental tool in astrophysics as research shifts from scanning the heavens for radio transmissions to detecting signs of life on the growing number of exoplanets. The search for life is summed up in Enrico Fermi’s paradox: Given the incalculable number of stars in the observable universe, it’s logical to believe that life has evolved off the earth.

If we were alone in the universe, the astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously noted, it would be an “awful waste of space.”

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.


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