Did You Hear Webb Found Life on an Exoplanet? Not so Fast…

Artist rendering of the view on a Hycean world. The recent detection of a biosignature on the Hycean world K2-18b attracted a lot of attention. Image Credit: Shang-Min Tsai/UCR

The JWST is astronomers’ best tool for probing exoplanet atmospheres. Its capable instruments can dissect the light passing through a distant world’s atmosphere and determine its chemical components. Scientists are interested in everything the JWST finds, but when it finds something indicating the possibility of life it seizes everyone’s attention.

That’s what happened in September 2023, when the JWST found dimethyl sulphide (DMS) in the atmosphere of the exoplanet K2-18b.

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Is the JWST Now an Interplanetary Meteorologist?

This artist’s concept shows what the hot gas-giant exoplanet WASP-43 b could look like. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ralf Crawford (STScI)

The JWST keeps one-upping itself. In the telescope’s latest act of outdoing itself, it examined a distant exoplanet to map its weather. The forecast?

An unending, blistering inferno driven by ceaseless supersonic winds.

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Another Hycean Planet Found? TOI-270 d

Artist's impression of the surface of a hycean world. Hycean worlds are still hypothetical, and have large oceans and thick hydrogen-rich atmospheres that trap heat. They could be habitable even if they're outside the traditional habitable zone. Credit: University of Cambridge

Hycean planets may be able to host life even though they’re outside what scientists consider the regular habitable zone. Their thick atmospheres can trap enough heat to keep the oceans warm even though they’re not close to their stars.

Astronomers have found another one of these potential hycean worlds named TOI-270 d.

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If Exoplanets Have Lightning, it’ll Complicate the Search for Life

Lightning on exoplanets could mask some biosignatures and amplify others. Image Credit: NASA/T.Pyle

Discovering exoplanets is almost routine now. We’ve found over 5,500 exoplanets, and the next step is to study their atmospheres and look for biosignatures. The James Webb Space Telescope is leading the way in that effort. But in some exoplanet atmospheres, lightning could make the JWST’s job more difficult by obscuring some potential biosignatures while amplifying others.

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Is K2-18b Covered in Oceans of Water or Oceans of Lava?

This illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like based on science data. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope examined the exoplanet and revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules. The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide, and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. But more extensive observations with the JWST are needed to understand its atmosphere with greater confidence. Image Credit: By Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)Science: Nikku Madhusudhan (IoA)

In the search for potentially life-supporting exoplanets, liquid water is the key indicator. Life on Earth requires liquid water, and scientists strongly believe the same is true elsewhere. But from a great distance, it’s difficult to tell what worlds have oceans of water. Some of them can have lava oceans instead, and getting the two confused is a barrier to understanding exoplanets, water, and habitability more clearly.

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Wow. JWST Just Found Methane in an Exoplanet Atmosphere

This artist’s rendering shows the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b. When viewed with human eyes, the colour may appear bluish due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That makes it similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. Image credit: NASA.

If there’s one chemical that causes excitement in the search for biosignatures on other worlds, it’s methane. It’s not a slam dunk because it has both biotic and abiotic sources. But finding it in an exoplanet’s atmosphere means that planet deserves a closer look.

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We Could Find Extraterrestrial Civilizations by Their Air Pollution

Exoplanet Kepler 62f would need an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide for water to be in liquid form. Artist's Illustration: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Upcoming telescopes will give us more power to search for biosignatures on all the exoplanets we’ve found. Much of the biosignature conversation is centred on biogenic chemistry, such as atmospheric gases produced by simple, single-celled creatures. But what if we want to search for technological civilizations that might be out there? Could we find them by searching for their air pollution?

If a distant civilization was giving our planet a cursory glance in its own survey of alien worlds and technosignatures, they couldn’t help but notice our air pollution.

Could we turn the tables on them?

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Stellar Flares May Not Condemn a Planet’s Habitability

An artistic rendering of a series of powerful stellar flares. New research says that flaring activity may not prevent life on exoplanets. CREDIT NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of star in our neighbourhood, and probably in the Milky Way. Because of that, many of the Earth-like and potentially life-supporting exoplanets we’ve detected are in orbit around red dwarfs. The problem is that red dwarfs can exhibit intense flaring behaviour, much more energetic than our relatively placid Sun.

So what does that mean for the potential of those exoplanets to actually support life?

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