One way or another, we're probably going to bump into alien life — and it could happen sooner than you think, according to scientists at a recent press conference during the 2021 APS April Meeting.
More to the point, a new and highly-anticipated space telescope might detect telltale signatures of life on other planets beyond our solar system in just 60 hours. 60 hours!
Gas dwarf planets given priority in the search for alien life
"What really surprised me about the results is that we may realistically find signs of life on other planets in the next 5 to 10 years," said a graduate student at The Ohio State University named Caprice Phillips — in an embargoed press release shared with Interesting Engineering (IE). Gas dwarf planets are special cases because they might host life. But sadly, since there are zero mini-Neptunes or super-Earths in our solar system, scientists have struggled to conclude whether their atmospheres housed ammonia and other possible life signs.
However, when the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches this October, it could detect ammonia in six gas dwarf planets after just a handful of orbits. In their study, Phillips and her team created models to study how JWST instruments might react to different clouds and atmospheric situations on distant planets — and then ranked the data to provide early search priorities for the forthcoming space telescope. "Humankind has contemplated the questions 'Are we alone? What is life? Is life elsewhere similar to us?" Phillips said in the embargoed report. "My research suggests that for the first time, we have the scientific knowledge and technological capabilities to realistically begin to find the answers to these questions."
In case you missed it, this is a big deal. The JWST is a flagship space mission of NASA's that began at the turn of the century, and — after several delays and hiccups in its development — expectations are running high. The telescope consists of a 21-ft, 4-inch (6.4-m) primary mirror — so big that it needs to (and can) fold up like origami to fit into the Ariane 5 rocket due to launch from French Guiana this October. But it's really big for a reason: to detect more light from objects in deep space than any other space telescope — which makes sense, since JWST's primary mirror is the largest mirror NASA has ever made.
The James Webb Space Telescope might discover alien life
The mirror was fully deployed for the first time in April 2020 — in the cleanroom confines of Northrup Grumman Space Systems, in California. While unfolded, the telescope was placed in a simulated zero-gravity place, so NASA scientists and engineers could confirm it would do the same after it launches. Because if it doesn't unfold in space — let's just say it needs to unfold in space.
"Deploying both wings of the telescope while part of the fully assembled observatory is another significant milestone showing Webb will deploy properly in space," said Lee Feinberg, who's the optical telescope element manager for JWST, in NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a NASA blog post. And once the space telescope reaches outer space, the hastening pace of exoplanet discoveries might accelerate even more.
Last month, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope found evidence that a freaky exoplanet called GJ 1132 may have metamorphosed from a gas giant into an Earth-sized core, and then grown another, second planetary atmosphere from volcanic activity. While this gas giant is too toxic for life, the discovery means the categorical divide between "habitable" or not might be far more complicated than we thought — possibly multiplying the number of planets where the James Webb Space Telescope could find life, and reducing the number of years until we do.