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The Himalayas distort Earth’s surface only about as much as a human hair would that of a billiard ball. Discerning such a minute effect on a planet orbiting another star might seem laughable—akin to perceiving the hair on the ball, with the ball on the moon. Nevertheless, two astronomers have proposed a way to detect mountains and other surface features on exoplanets. And as mind-blowing as that may seem, the researchers have even loftier goals in mind.

“It almost might be fair to say that this project by itself isn’t that exciting,” says Moiya McTier, a Columbia University graduate student who co-wrote the paper describing the proposal with Columbia assistant professor of astronomy David Kipping. “Because once you find mountains, then what? [But] that leads to answering the question that we've actually wanted to answer for the last few decades, which is: Can these planets hold life?”

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Category: Science