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A group of astronomers claimed that there is a possibility that NASA’s newly launched James Webb Space Telescope could detect extraterrestrial life or even signs of advanced extraterrestrial civilization on planets outside the Solar System, that is, if they exist.
Astronomers hope the new telescope will change the way we understand our universe, just like the Hubble Space Telescope did decades before.
Among others, one tantalizing capability that James Webb offers, unlike Hubble, is the opportunity to directly image individual exoplanets orbiting distant stars; a tantalizing prospect that, according to some, could lead us to discover life.
Detectable traces of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
Specifically, astrobiologists, including those at NASA and Pennsylvania State University, say that James Webb has the potential to detect markers of habitability, as well as atmospheric and surface signatures of life on other planets.
In a study not yet peer-reviewed, published earlier this month on the preprint server ArXiv, They claimed that, with the right settings, the powerful telescope could be used to detect planets with detectable traces of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in their atmosphere.
Greenhouse Gases: Indicator of Civilization
On Earth, greenhouse gases like CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer, and which have persisted due to their long life in the outermost layers of our atmosphere, are a clear indicator of an industrialized civilization.
Under this same premise, according to the reasoning of scientists, alien civilizations could also leave or have left similar signs (artificial atmospheric components) on other planets, which could be considered as “technosignatures” in the search for extraterrestrial life.
“Biosignatures refer generally to any remotely detectable evidence of life, while ‘technosignatures’ specifically describe observational evidence of technology that could be detected through astronomical means,” the scientists wrote in the study.
“Technosignatures are a logical continuation of the search for biosignatures, since both are based on the history of life and technology on Earth as examples of planetary evolution,” they explained.
Civilizations in eTRAPPIST-1 system?
The team even identified a good first target to look for CFCs: TRAPPIST-1, a system made up of several Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light-years away.
“CFCs are a notable example of technosignatures on Earth, and the detection of CFCs on a planet like TRAPPIST-1e would be difficult to explain through any biological or geological features known to us today,” the paper reads.
However, the scientists admitted that the new telescope’s ability to find CFCs on other planets has several limitations. For example, if a planet’s star is too bright, it will drown out the signal. Therefore, the telescope will have more success observing M-class stars, which are dim, long-lived red dwarfs, like TRAPPIST-1.
Unfortunately, M-class stars aren’t usually conducive to life, though experts warn that if they slow down as they age, they may become more habitable.
As reported Universe Todaythe James Webb Telescope could see CFCs on TRAPPIST-1’s planets, because the dim star won’t drown out the CFC signature in the same way that a bright star, like our Sun (a G-type star), would.
The future in space exploration
However, that could soon change as even more capable technologies are developed. “In the coming decades there will be at least two of Earth’s passive technosignatures, radio emissions and atmospheric pollution, that would be detectable by our own technology around the nearest star,” the team said.
In any case, the fact that we are about to have the ability to look directly opens up a wide range of possibilities for understanding the cosmos.
As the article concludes, “with the launch of the James Webb telescope, humanity may be very close to a major milestone in search for extraterrestrial intelligence“.
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