Exoplanets Extraterrestrial life James Webb space Telescope

At Big Think: 5 ways the James Webb Space Telescope could change science forever

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On July 12, 2022, JWST will release its first science images.

The James Webb Space Telescope, ahead of schedule and performing better than its design specifications dictated, is on the cusp of beginning its science operations.

While many new discoveries about the Universe are anticipated, from planets to stars to galaxies to dust to black holes and more, there are some amazing possibilities for what we don’t expect, but might still find.

Thanks to its unique, unprecedented capabilities, JWST might answer five currently open questions about the Universe in very surprising ways. Here are some clues about what we should keep our minds open to.

An ID-relevant potential discovery would be the James Webb Space Telescope’s ability to discern if biosignatures exist on nearby super-Earth exoplanets.

(Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

If other inhabited planets exist in our galaxy, near-future technology that will be at our disposal within this century, or perhaps even this decade, may be able to first uncover it. Equipped with both a coronagraph and tremendous spectroscopic infrared capabilities, the JWST could, if we’re very lucky, find the first evidence for life beyond our Solar System.

When an exoplanet passes in front of its parent star, a portion of that starlight will filter through the exoplanet’s atmosphere, allowing us to break up that light into its constituent wavelengths and to characterize the atomic and molecular composition of the atmosphere. If the planet is inhabited, we may reveal unique biosignatures.

When starlight passes through a transiting exoplanet’s atmosphere, signatures are imprinted. Depending on the wavelength and intensity of both emission and absorption features, the presence or absence of various atomic and molecular species within an exoplanet’s atmosphere can be revealed through the technique of transit spectroscopy.

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Even finding spectroscopic evidence of oxygen in a planetary atmosphere could be taken as evidence of photosynthetic activity from living organisms. Although understandable, the excitement over finding signs of life on an extrasolar planet needs to be tempered with the scientific reality that natural formation of the phenomenal biochemical complexity within a single cell exceeds by far any conceivable combination of natural forces.

4 Replies to “At Big Think: 5 ways the James Webb Space Telescope could change science forever

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    The problem with expensive toys is that nobody can waste the limited bandwidth on random browsing. Expensive toys have to be used for orthodox well-funded high-priority purposes. Therefore we won’t really find any new questions; we’ll just add more decimal places to existing answers.

    Real discoveries happen by serendipity, deciding to look in an “unproductive” or “impossible” place using “inappropriate” tools. None of that is allowed on a billion-dollar project.

  2. 2
    Seversky says:

    You never know what you might find if you don’t look.

  3. 3
    Fred Hickson says:

    You never know what you might find if you don’t look.

    As Galileo remarked.

  4. 4
    jerry says:

    Who is suggesting that no one looks?

    The interesting question is that the Earth is incredibly fine tuned. How many eco-planets exhibit similar characteristics. I’m sure that will be part of the basic research. Not on the basis of showing fine tuning but just finding similar atmospheres to Earth.

    Aside: nitrogen is also very essential for life. So that will be part of the research. How about CO2?

    Aside2: Galileo has been covered in detail here in the past. The conventional wisdom about him is wrong.

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