Less than a year after it went to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has already demonstrated its worth many times over. The images it has acquired of distant galaxies, nebulae, exoplanet atmospheres, and deep fields are the most detailed and sensitive ever taken. And yet, one of the most exciting aspects of its mission is just getting started: the search for evidence of life beyond Earth. This will consist of Webb using its powerful infrared instruments to look for chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes (aka. biosignatures).
The chemical signatures vary, each representing a different pathway toward the potential discovery of life. According to The Conversation’s Joanna Barstow, a planetary scientist and an Ernest Rutherford Fellow at The Open University specializing in the study of exoplanet atmospheres, there are four ways that Webb could do this. These include looking for chemicals that lifeforms depend on, chemical byproducts produced by living organisms, chemicals essential to maintaining a stable climate, and chemicals that shouldn’t coexist.
In a recent study accepted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, an international team of researchers led by Texas A&M University investigate how the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can detect a variety of exoplanets orbiting the nearest 15 white dwarfs to Earth using its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) Medium Resolution Spectrograph (MRS). This study holds the potential to expand our knowledge of exoplanets, their planetary compositions, and if they can support life.
One of the most exciting aspects of space exploration today is how the field of astrobiology – the search for life in our Universe – has become so prominent. In the coming years, many robotic and even crewed missions will be bound for Mars that will aid in the ongoing search for life there. Beyond Mars, missions are planned for the outer Solar System that will explore satellites and bodies with icy exteriors and interior oceans – otherwise known as “Ocean Worlds.” These include the Jovian satellites Europa and Ganymede and Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus.
Similar to how missions to Mars have analyzed soil and rock samples for evidence of past life, the proposed missions will analyze liquid samples for the chemical signatures that we associate with life and biological processes (aka. “biosignatures”). To aid in this search, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have designed the Ocean Worlds Life Surveyor (OWLS), a suite of eight scientific instruments designed to sniff out biosignatures. In the coming decades, this suite could be used by robotic probes bound for “Ocean Worlds” all across the Solar System to search for signs of life.
When the James Webb Space Telescope aims at exoplanet atmospheres, it’ll use spectroscopy to identify chemical elements. One of the things it’s looking for is methane, a chemical compound that can indicate the presence of life.
Methane is a compelling biosignature. Finding a large amount of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere might be our most reliable indication that life’s at work there. There are abiotic sources of methane, but for the most part, methane comes from life.
But to understand methane as a potential biosignature, we need to understand it in a planetary context. A new research letter aims to do that.
We’re still in the early days of searching for life elsewhere. The Perseverance rover is on its way to a paleo-delta on Mars to look for fossilized signs of ancient bacterial life. SETI’s been watching the sky with radio dishes, listening for signals from distant worlds. Our telescopes are beginning to scan the atmospheres of distant exoplanets for biosignatures.
Soon we’ll take another step forward in the search when new, powerful telescopes begin to search not just for life but for other civilizations.
The field of extrasolar planet studies is undergoing a seismic shift. To date, 4,940 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,711 planetary systems, with another 8,709 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many planets available for study and improvements in telescope sensitivity and data analysis, the focus is transitioning from discovery to characterization. Instead of simply looking for more planets, astrobiologists will examine “potentially-habitable” worlds for potential “biosignatures.”
This refers to the chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes, one of the most important of which is water. As the only known solvent that life (as we know it) cannot exist, water is considered the divining rod for finding life. In a recent study, astrophysicists Dang Pham and Lisa Kaltenegger explain how future surveys (when combined with machine learning) could discern the presence of water, snow, and clouds on distant exoplanets.
For almost sixty years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next fifteen years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.
Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this Challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.
There’s nothing easy about searching for evidence of life on Mars. Not only do we somehow have to land a rover there, which is extraordinarily difficult. But the rover needs the right instruments, and it has to search in the right location. Right now, the Perseverance lander has checked those boxes as it pursues its mission in Jezero Crater.
But there’s another problem: there are structures that look like fossils but aren’t. Many natural chemical processes produce structures that mimic biological ones. How can we tell them apart? How can we prepare for these false positives?
The search for Martian life has been ongoing for decades. Various landers and rovers have searched for biosignatures or other hints that life existed either currently or in the past on the Red Planet. But so far, results have been inconclusive. That might be about to change, though, with a slew of missions planned to collect even more samples for testing. Mars itself isn’t the only place they are looking, though. Some scientists think the best place to find evidence of life is one of Mars’ moons.