Could there be life in space? Scientists hope the James Webb Space Telescope will help them get closer to the answer.
Astronomers have yet to find a solar system quite like ours. And of the thousands of known exoplanets, none quite match the planets in our cosmic backyard. But scientists have only just begun to scratch the surface of these planets outside the solar system. The next step is to look inside them.
Webb will peer into the very atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are potentially habitable. Since the discovery of the first exoplanets in the 1990s, many have wondered if we might find another Earth there, a place called Planet B.
So far, studying these bodies hasn’t revealed another Earth, and it’s unlikely that even with technology like the Webb there isn’t “a true analogue of Earth,” a said Klaus Pontoppidan, Project Webb scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Signs of life: The Webb Telescope will look inside the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting stars much smaller than our sun. These planets are linked to an intriguing idea: what if life happened differently outside of Earth? And that’s something that successors to this telescope could study for decades to come.
In fact, the task of identifying signs of life on other planets is already planned for future telescopes, like the one described in the recently released Astro2020 decadal survey that will examine 25 potentially habitable exoplanets.
“I really want us to be able to find life on something that doesn’t look much like Earth,” said Nikole Lewis, astrophysicist and assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
Life, as we understand it, needs energy, fluid and the right temperature, she said. What happens when a potential sign of life is detected? Finding the sign is fantastic — and figuring out where to go next is crucial, said Sara Seager, an astrophysicist, planetary scientist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
If it’s determined there was no other way to create a potential sign of life, collaboration will be a key aspect, Lewis said. Engaging with chemists, biologists, and people from different disciplines outside of astronomy and planetary sciences can determine the way forward.
“Hopefully we’ll be careful and engage with all the relevant experts to try to figure out if this is in fact a signature that could only mean that life is on this planet, and then hopefully -le, announced such a thing to the public,” Lewis said.
Jill Tarter, astronomer and former director of the Center for SETI Research, believes that the answer to the discovery of life may lie in technosignatures rather than biosignatures, because evidence for past or present technology is “potentially much less ambiguous “.
Biosignatures could be gases or molecules that show signs of life. Technosignatures are signals that could be created by intelligent life.
To learn more about the search for life in space, click here.