- The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to examine planets outside our solar system in unprecedented detail.
- The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will revolutionize our ability to learn about these far-flung places.
- One fascinating planetary system that James Webb will investigate is TRAPPIST-1 which is around 40 light-years away.
The James Webb Space Telescope
NASA will launch the most powerful telescope ever sent into orbit in December. The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to examine planets outside our solar system in unprecedented detail, including determining if their atmospheres indicate the presence of life as we know it.
Of course, the hunt for life beyond Earth is difficult, and this telescope will not provide conclusive evidence that aliens exist. However, some experts believe that this telescope may be able to detect indications of life on Earth-sized planets that have hitherto escaped careful inspection.
Searching for evidence of life was not part of the original job description for the James Webb Space Telescope, which was named after a previous NASA administrator.
Back then, no one had discovered any planets orbiting distant stars, and scientists were primarily interested in developing a telescope capable of capturing light from the universe’s initial galaxies.
However, the construction of this $10 billion device proved to be so difficult and time-consuming that, in the interim, a whole new scientific discipline has emerged. That is the study of exoplanets or worlds outside our solar system. The next generation of astronomers is eager to make use of the capabilities of this telescope.
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will revolutionize our ability to learn about these far-flung places. So far, it’s been impossible to know what faraway planets are actually like, except for some basic statistics like their mass and distance from the star they circle.
This is due to the fact that scientists seldom see the planets themselves. Instead, planets are discovered indirectly by researchers. They may, for example, see how a planet’s gravity causes a star to wobble, or how a star dims because a planet has passed in front of it and obscured part of the star’s light.
Searching for ‘biosignatures’
The large light-collecting mirror on the telescope, which is 21 feet across, will capture enough light to allow scientists to examine the chemical make-up of tiny rocky planets’ atmospheres like never before.
This is significant because, if any of those planets have life as we know it, scientists would expect to find specific tell-tale combinations of various chemicals known as ‘biosignatures,’ such as oxygen plus methane.
“The James Webb Space Telescope does have the capability to measure those key biosignatures,” says Nikole Lewis, another astronomer at Cornell University who focuses on planets beyond our solar system. “It’s within scope for the James Webb Space Telescope to find hints of life on rocky planets.”
One fascinating planetary system that James Webb will investigate is around 40 light-years away. TRAPPIST-1, a tiny, cold star, is orbited by seven Earth-sized planets, three of which orbit in the zone where temperatures should be moderate enough to support liquid water.