Do Planets Have the Raw Ingredients for Life? The Answer is in their Stars

Illustration of the Plato Observatory

Finding planets that already have, or have the ingredients for intelligent life is a real challenge. It is exciting that new telescopes and spacecraft are in development that will start to identify candidate planets. Undertaking these observations will take significant amounts of telescope time so we need to find some way to prioritise which ones to look at first. A new paper has been published that suggests we can study the host stars first for the necessary raw elements giving a more efficient way to hunt for similar worlds to Earth. 

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Almost a Third of Early Galaxies Were Already Spirals

The graceful winding arms of the grand-design spiral galaxy M51 stretch across this image from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. New JWST observations of the early Universe are upending our understanding of galaxy evolution. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team

In the years before the JWST’s launch, astronomers’ efforts to understand the early Universe were stymied by a stubborn obstacle: the light from the early Universe was red-shifted to an extreme degree. The JWST was built with extreme redshifts in mind, and one of its goals was to study Galaxy Assembly.

Once the JWST activated its segmented, beryllium eye, the Universe’s most ancient, red-shifted light became visible.

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Webb is an Amazing Supernova Hunter

80 objects (circled in green) that changed in brightness over time, as seen by JWST. Most of these are supernovae. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, JADES Collaboration

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just increased the number of known distant supernovae by tenfold. This rapid expansion of astronomers’ catalog of supernovae is extremely valuable, not least because it improves the reliability of measurements for the expansion of the universe.

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Sulphur Makes A Surprise Appearance in this Exoplanet’s Atmosphere

This artist's illustration shows the Neptune-like exoplanet GJ 3470b, which has an atmosphere rich in sulphur. The planet's atmosphere holds clues to how it and other similar planets formed. Image Credit: Department of Astronomy, UW–Madison

At our current level of knowledge, many exoplanet findings take us by surprise. The only atmospheric chemistry we can see with clarity is Earth’s, and we still have many unanswered questions about how our planet and its atmosphere developed. With Earth as our primary reference point, many things about exoplanet atmospheres seem puzzling in comparison and generate excitement and deeper questions.

That’s what’s happened with GJ-3470 b, a Neptune-like exoplanet about 96 light-years away.

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Webb Sees Asteroids Collide in Another Star System

Asteroid collision: CREDIT:NASA/LYNETTE COOK

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) continues to make amazing discoveries. This time in the constellation of Pictor where, in the Beta Pictoris system a massive collision of asteroids. The system is young and only just beginning its evolutionary journey with planets only now starting to form. Just recently, observations from JWST have shown significant energy changes emitted by dust grains in the system compared to observations made 20 years ago. Dust production was thought to be ongoing but the results showed the data captured 20 years ago may have been a one-off event that has since faded suggesting perhaps, an asteroid strike!

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Carbon is Surprisingly Abundant in an Early Galaxy

Deep field image from JWST Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), Ben Johnson (CfA), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Phill Cargile (CfA)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has once again found evidence that the early universe was a far more complex place than we thought. This time, it has detected the signature of carbon atoms present in a galaxy that formed just 350 million years after the Big Bang – one of the earliest galaxies ever observed.

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An Earth-sized Exoplanet Found Orbiting a Jupiter-Sized Star

This artist's illustration shows the exoplanet SPECULOOS-3 b orbiting its red dwarf star. The planet is as big around as Earth, while its star is slightly bigger than Jupiter – but much more massive. The planet is a prime candidate for follow-up studies with the JWST. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Red dwarf stars, also known as M-dwarfs, dominate the Milky Way’s stellar population. They can last for 100 billion years or longer. Since these long-lived stars make up the bulk of the stars in our galaxy, it stands to reason that they host the most planets.

Astronomers examined one red dwarf star named SPECULOOS-3, a Jupiter-sized star about 55 light-years away, and found an Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting it. It’s an excellent candidate for further study with the James Webb Space Telescope.

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NASA has a New Database to Predict Meteoroid Hazards for Spaceflight

There are plenty of problems that spacecraft designers have to consider. Getting smacked in the sensitive parts by a rock is just one of them, but it is a very important one. A micrometeoroid hitting the wrong part of the spacecraft could jeopardize an entire mission, and the years of work it took to get to the point where the mission was actually in space in the first place. But even if the engineers who design spacecraft know about this risk, how is it best to avoid them? A new programming library from research at NASA could help.

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Galaxies in the Early Universe Preferred their Food Cold

This illustration shows a galaxy forming only a few hundred million years after the big bang, when gas was a mix of transparent and opaque during the Era of Reionization. Data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows that cold gas is falling onto these galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Joseph Olmsted (STScI)

One of the main objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is to study the early Universe by using its powerful infrared optics to spot the first galaxies while they were still forming. Using Webb data, a team led by the Cosmic Dawn Center in Denmark pinpointed three galaxies that appear to have been actively forming just 400 to 600 million years after the Big Bang. This places them within the Era of Reionization, when the Universe was permeated by opaque clouds of neutral hydrogen that were slowly heated and ionized by the first stars and galaxies.

This process caused the Universe to become transparent roughly 1 billion years after the Big Bang and (therefore) visible to astronomers today. When the team consulted the data obtained by Webb, they observed that these galaxies were surrounded by an unusual amount of dense gas composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, which likely became fuel for further galactic growth. These findings already reveal valuable information about the formation of early galaxies and show how Webb is exceeding its mission objectives.

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A New Venus-Sized World Found in the Habitable Zone of its Star

The parade of interesting new exoplanets continues. Today, NASA issued a press release announcing the discovery of a new exoplanet in the Gliese 12 system, sized somewhere between Earth and Venus and inside the host star’s habitable zone. Two papers detail the discovery, but both teams think that the planet is an excellent candidate for follow-up with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to try to tease out whether it has an atmosphere and, if so, what that atmosphere is made of.

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