NASA discovers 5,000 exoplanets. Could one support alien life?

Confirming alien life could be only a matter of time.
Chris Young
An illustration of exoplanets.NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA announced that the 5,000th exoplanet was discovered, providing a massive foundation for its continued search for alien life, a post from NASA explains.

An exoplanet is any planet found beyond our solar system, that may or may not be (like Earth) in its system's habitable zone. Though NASA has thousands of exoplanets — from hot Jupiter-like gas giants to planets orbiting neutron stars — in its archive, it has likely only scratched the surface of what's out there.

Finding alien worlds

The first two exoplanets were confirmed in 1992, changing our perspective on the cosmos, and leading to an influx of investigations into the possibility of life on other planets. Now, on March 21 this year, a new batch of 65 exoplanets was discovered and added to the NASA Exoplanet Archive, taking the total to 5,005. 

"It’s not just a number," said Jessie Christiansen, science lead for the Exoplanet archive and a research scientist with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute. "Each one of them is a new world, a brand-new planet. I get excited about every one because we don't know anything about them."

The first exoplanet was discovered 30 years ago when a scientist, Alexander Wolszczan, measured slight changes in the timing of the pulses of a neutron star, revealing the existence of planets orbiting the star. In NASA's post, Wolszczan, who still searches for exoplanets, said "if you can find planets around a neutron star, planets have to be basically everywhere. The planet production process has to be very robust."

When will we find alien life?

Exoplanets are at the root of the Fermi Paradox, which states that we should really have detected alien life given the fact that there are likely billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. Currently, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in 2018, is making the majority of exoplanet discoveries. However, other satellites such as the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope will likely unlock a wealth of new information on the alien worlds.

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"To my thinking, it is inevitable that we’ll find some kind of life somewhere – most likely of some primitive kind," Wolszczan said, citing the close connection between the chemistry of life on Earth and the chemistry found throughout the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope recently provided its first image of a distant star, though that was taken for calibration purposes. If all goes to plan, the $10 billion space instrument will start to make its first observations of the cosmos for scientific purposes in the summer. In reality, 5,000 exoplanets is a small number compared to what's likely out there. The more we find the closer we will be to detecting life on another planet.

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