In the past few years, we have seen a real boom in the discovery of exoplanets. Today there are 4375 such objects, another 5856 are awaiting confirmation. With the commissioning of several large next-generation telescopes, the number will undoubtedly increase even more. And scientists began to actively work on the search for the most effective “biosignatures” that can indicate the presence of traces of life there.
To date, the vast majority of exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed by indirect methods. Only in rare cases have astronomers been able to obtain real spectra of radiation, which makes it possible to accurately determine their chemical composition.
According to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most accurate marker may be the presence of the organic hydrocarbon compound isoprene on the planet. With this knowledge, instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope will know exactly what to look for in exoplanets.
How will the James Webb Space Telescope change space exploration?
In simple terms, these unique devices will be able to observe our Universe at longer wavelengths, in the near and middle infrared range, and with significantly higher sensitivity than the currently operating devices. “Biosignatures” include chemical characteristics associated with life and biological processes, and also speak of favorable conditions for this.
Previously, such markers were considered oxygen and carbon dioxide, which are produced by living organisms on Earth, water, and methane released during the decomposition of organic substances, as well as some by-products (hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen gas, and so on). However, all this could have accumulated on a lifeless planet. But isoprene is an almost unique, rare compound.
According to the calculations of the researchers, the “original planet” (on which life begins to emerge) must necessarily have a large amount of isoprene in its atmosphere. So it was on Earth between four and 2.5 billion years ago, when single-celled organisms were the only form of life, and photosynthetic cyanobacteria slowly created an oxygen atmosphere around the Earth. So now the search will focus on this particular compound.
Of course, research will face a number of challenges. It is not even known whether James Webb or any other instrument will lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial life during the 21st century. But one thing is clear. In the coming years, astronomers will study in detail the atmospheres of thousands of exoplanets and will have an exhaustive list of planets with the most accurate biosignatures, which they can use to guide them in their search for specific traces of life throughout the galaxy.
What if we find alien life?
Even if we do not establish real contact soon, we may find signs that alien life exists through the work of the James Webb Space Telescope. Even this much will make the most important discovery in the history of mankind. But what will happen if we do establish contact?
We recently wrote two detailed articles discussing two fantastic questions related to the first official contact with aliens that is yet to happen. In one, we discussed whether advanced aliens would have a universal language or many like we do on Earth. In the second one, we discussed how humans would feel when they first see aliens.
A similar question was raised recently by a professor named Michio Kaku. According to him, telescopes like James Webb will be sufficient enough for us to discover alien life. On the other hand, he also argues that aliens may not be as friendly as we imagine, and finding them may not be the best idea at this current moment.
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• Jenner, L. (2021, March 29). NASA’s Webb Telescope general Observer scientific Programs selected.
• NASA. (n.d.). Planets & origins of life – Webb/NASA.
• Tran, T. (2021, April 04). Famed physicist: Soon-to-launch telescope likely to discover alien life.
• Williams, M. (2021, April 02). If astronomers see ISOPRENE in the atmosphere of an alien world, there’s a good chance there’s life there.
• Zhan, Z., Zhan, A., Seager, S., Earth, D., Petkowski, J., Sousa-Silva, C., . . . Bains, W. (2021, April 01). Assessment of Isoprene as a POSSIBLE Biosignature gas in exoplanets with Anoxic Atmospheres.