SEP 10, 2018 6:19 PM PDT

The James Webb Space Telescope May Help Astronomers Search for Alien Life

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

Despite an onslaught of delays that have thus far prevented NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope from being launched into space, the space observatory promises to answer some of the most challenging questions about our universe today.

Perhaps one of the most mind-bending questions of them all is: are we alone out there? Astronomers have been searching for answers to this question for as long as we can remember, but the James Webb Space Telescope could bring us one step closer to resolving it.

Image Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Joshua Krissansen-Totton

Astronomer Joshua Krissansen-Totton and colleagues from the University of Washington note that the James Webb Space Telescope’s powerful onboard sensory equipment could be far more capable of searching for exoplanetary biosignatures than any of its predecessors.

More specifically, they’d be looking for a particular byproduct of life known as "atmospheric chemical disequilibrium," a study published in the journal Science Advances reports. But what does that mean?

To better understand the meaning, we must consider our Earth and how its atmospheric chemical composition changed once life began breathing and sustaining biological chemical reactions.

Theoretically, similar chemical byproducts should exist in exoplanetary atmospheres if those worlds support alien life; but it’s always possible that alien life forms, should they exist, might not inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as humans do. In fact, the circumstances may be very different.

"This idea of looking for atmospheric oxygen as a biosignature has been around for a long time. And it's a good strategy—it's very hard to make much oxygen without life," Krissansen-Totton explained.

"But we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket. Even if life is common in the cosmos, we have no idea if it will be life that makes oxygen. The biochemistry of oxygen production is very complex and could be quite rare."

Related: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope completes cryogenic testing

The astronomers involved in the study agree that three specific gasses could be used to discern whether an exoplanet potentially supported alien life. The presence of both carbon dioxide and methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere would look somewhat promising, but the coexistence of vast amounts of carbon monoxide in the same exoplanet’s atmosphere would likely serve as an automatic disqualifier.

"We need to look for fairly abundant methane and carbon dioxide on a world that has liquid water at its surface, and find an absence of carbon monoxide," added study co-author David Catling.

"Our study shows that this combination would be a compelling sign of life. What's exciting is that our suggestion is doable, and may lead to the historic discovery of an extraterrestrial biosphere in the not-too-distant future."

Related: This hot exoplanet's atmosphere contains gaseous atomic iron and titanium

While the traditional search for both liquid water and oxygen gas serves as an excellent starting point for discerning potentially-habitable exoplanets, the researchers conclude that the atmospheric concoction described in their paper would help astronomers narrow down potential life-supporting exoplanets.

Fortunately, the James Webb Space Telescope’s powerful infrared capabilities would make for the ideal tool for investigating exoplanetary atmospheres for these biological signatures. The observatory’s 6.5-meter gold-plated mirror promise to provide some the most explicit and precise data astronomers have ever laid eyes on.

It’ll be a few more years before the James Webb Space Telescope gets to visit outer space, but it certainly seems like it will be worth the wait. If all goes well, perhaps we’ll finally answer this pressing question once and for all.

Source: BBC, Phys.org, Science Advances

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
NOV 24, 2019
Space & Astronomy
NOV 24, 2019
Spacewalking Astronauts Attempt to Fix AMS-02's Cooling System
When you’re an astronaut at the International Space Station, being asked to take on risky spacewalk missions is par for the course. In just the last...
DEC 09, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 09, 2019
Astronauts help to advanced personalized medicine
Extreme temperatures and lethal levels of radiation are just some of the hazards faced by astronauts as they traverse the harsh conditions of space. Additi...
DEC 29, 2019
Space & Astronomy
DEC 29, 2019
The Dangers of Space Debris Explained
Humankind has become increasingly reliant on satellites and space technology to conduct everyday life, be it GPS for navigation on the road or satellite in...
JAN 28, 2020
Space & Astronomy
JAN 28, 2020
An Ambitious New Mission to Explore the Sun's Poles
A plethora of spacecraft have photographed the Sun, but every one of those photographs has been snapped from the rather limited perspective of the Sun&rsqu...
FEB 16, 2020
Space & Astronomy
FEB 16, 2020
Just How Powerful is a Piece of Space Debris?
One of the most commonly discussed topics in space science today is the space junk problem, in which space junk collides with objects to create space debri...
MAR 08, 2020
Space & Astronomy
MAR 08, 2020
Mars 2020 Rover Will be Named 'Perseverance'
The Mars 2020 rover has been a popular topic of discussion over the past several years, but it has remained rather conspicuously named up until now. With a...
Loading Comments...