NASA's James Webb took one crucial step closer to finding habitable exoplanets

If there's life in space, we might know soon.
Mert Erdemir
James Webb will study far galaxies in deep space.dima_zel/iStock

Life in outer space has long been an enigmatic topic for humankind. There is almost no hope for planets in our solar system. On the other hand, studying exoplanets - planets outside the solar system - also challenges the limits of the technology we have developed, at least until now. Some studies have been conducted on exoplanets in recent decades, and one is revealed to have an atmosphere similar to the one of the Earth.

And now, James Webb Telescope is one crucial step closer to providing us with the best information about the potentiality of life in exoplanets, according to NASA.

NASA's Ames Research Center, based in California's Silicon Valley, is planning to conduct a research about exoplanets by using James Webb Space Telescope in a world first. Naturally, as the planet scope in the study broadens, so does the diversity. "The diversity of planets we've discovered within the galaxy far exceeds the diversity of planets within our own solar system," said Natasha Batalha, who is a co-investigator on several Webb programs and a research scientist at Ames. "In our solar system, we have the inner rocky worlds and outer gas planets – but the most common exoplanets we see are actually in between."

Baltaha's team will investigate 11 planets among those mentioned as in-between. Their purpose is to get a basic sense of how these exoplanets formed and have evolved in order to understand if such planets have an atmosphere or life on them is possible.

Searching for potentially habitable exoplanets

"A planet's atmosphere is essential for the possibility of life as we know it," said Thomas Greene, an astrophysicist at Ames. "We’ve developed Webb's instruments to be able to give us the data we need to not only detect atmospheres but to determine what they are made of."

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James Webb is expected to gather data about one rocky exoplanet called TRAPPIST-1b. Although the information about this planet is limited, it is known that TRAPPIST-1b is the innermost planet in its system and it orbits very close to its small, cool, and dwarf host-star. With the information James Webb provides, further information can reveal whether the planet carries a potential for hosting life.

Turning back to Natasha Baltaha, she is conducting an investigation on 5 exoplanets two of which - TRAPPIST-1h and TRAPPIST-1e - are in the same system with TRAPPIST-1b. It is also known that TRAPPIST-1e is located in the habitable zone. At the end of the observations, it can be revealed if these planets have atmospheres and if yes, what they are made of.

There is a lot to discover about the Earth, let alone the solar system. But learning more about the exoplanets could help us comprehend the prospects for habitability and lead us to better methods and directions in our exploration of space.

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