With NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the search for habitable planets seems hopeful — for now. Powered by Northrop Grumman

Our search for habitable planets that could support life has taken it to a whole new level – one that extraterrestrials might like if we ever got in touch with them.

After a successful launch in late 2021, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is approximately 1 million miles from Earth and has completed an extensive commissioning process that included 17 online scientific instrument modes and countless tests. Now the machine’s massive wonder is operating at full capacity, the first of many observations over a possible 20 years in space. The telescope’s instruments aim to pick up faint objects that could be more than 13.5 billion years away, including galaxies that began just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

As Webb searches for clues about the formation of the universe, he will also try to pick up hallmarks of habitability in the atmospheres of exoplanets. What he finds is anyone’s guess, but given that it’s the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched from Earth, scientists are excited.

The super telescope built for the ages will undergo its first test

Webb is 100 times more powerful than the largest optical telescope to travel into space: the Hubble Space Telescope. As Hubble orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 354 miles, Webb is approximately 930,000 miles away. From this point of view, Webb’s instruments can operate mostly in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, relying on sensitivity cameras and a mirror with a diameter of 21.3 feet. This primary mirror intercepts the movement of infrared light through space and bounces it back to a smaller mirror, which then focuses the light onto telescope instruments for processing and study.

In one of Webb’s first tests, he set his sights on the TRAPPIST-1 system, a group of seven rocky exoplanets 41 light-years from Earth and three times the diameter of our planet. NASA says web results It will characterize the atmospheres of these planets and help scientists learn more about the formation and habitability of planets. Yes, regardless of how exoplanets formed, they are also looking for signs that life might be able to exist.

Will NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope find indications that could support life?

Understanding the TRAPPIST-1 system and other exoplanets may lead to atmospheric indicators that may support the effects of life in the universe. Such as SETI Institute He notes, although distant objects in the images captured by Webb will appear as single-pixel dots, scientists can create a mountain of this dust of information. Ultraviolet light from distant planets and stars is stretched by the expansion of the universe, but scientists can turn the tiniest points of this light through a high-tech prism and spread it into a detailed spectrum that can reveal what’s in a given atmosphere.

Oxygen and other unique markers in the atmosphere can indicate the existence of biology on a planet. SETI provided one example: Atmospheric images of Mars and Venus will show CO2 to observers in other galaxies, while Earth will not only show CO22 But also the accumulation of exhaust gas from billions of years of photosynthesis – ample evidence of life.

However, the trick is to sort out the correct and incorrect results. Scientists cannot jump on a spacecraft to confirm what the Webb telescope is seeing. To help NASA, several scientists recently published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences To say Webb must be alert to the presence of methane in the search for alien life.

The Webb Telescope will have a hard time detecting oxygen, but the diffusion of methane could indicate the biological activity necessary for the formation of the chemical compound, scientists explained at Press release announcing the study. Photochemical reactions destroy atmospheric methane, so its appearance in the atmosphere means it is constantly being replenished to maintain high levels.

Non-biological sources would not be able to produce a significant amount of methane without providing other evidence of its origins, such as carbon monoxide. However, scientists have found that non-biological sources cannot easily produce habitable planet atmospheres heavy in methane and carbon dioxide with little to no carbon monoxide. So, if an abundance of methane is found in the atmosphere and other non-biological sources can be ruled out, NASA can start building on that evidence.

“One molecule is not going to give you the answer – you have to take into account the entire context of the planet,” one of the scientists said in a press release. But methane will help eliminate false positives and give NASA and other concerned scientists a leap in determining whether distant planets are — or still — serve as a habitat for biological life, or as we say, “alien.”

More and more confidence that we will see something someday

The stories the Webb Telescope can tell are puzzling — so much so that scientists are beginning to feel confident that they can find conditions for life in the outer reaches of space. Last year, a group of them led by NASA’s chief scientist proposed a framework to verify and inform the public about extraterrestrial biometric detection.

A biosignature is any property, element, molecule, substance, or feature that can be used as evidence of past or present life. It must also be something that cannot be made without the presence of life.

idea, like Scientific American reports, to avoid false alarms and false claims by sticking the results on a scale of one to seven, with a claim making its way to the scale where studies confirm the work. Claims that reach “final levels will represent strong follow-up notes that enhance the connection to life.”

With the Webb telescope now in space, it will be fun to watch him work in the slow collapse of the images he brings home. We hope to see the strongest evidence for how the universe formed, and we also hope to see signs of habitable worlds carried millions of miles from here – creating a new set of scientific questions and spurring further space exploration.

Did you know that Northrop Grumman helped build the web? If you are interested in a space exploration job, Please click here.