NASA’s alien-hunting telescope could find an inhabited planet by 2050, scientist claims

NASA's alien-hunting telescope could find an inhabited planet by 2050, scientist claims

NASA’s alien-hunting telescope could find an inhabited planet by 2050, scientist claims

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has only been in operation for a little less than two years, but scientists are already eyeing their next extraterrestrial hunting gadget.



And now, one astrophysicist working with the US space agency on the search for Earth-like exoplanets has come forward to say NASA’s planned new telescope, the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), may find proof of alien life ‘in our lifetime.’ 

Three NASA contracts totaling $17.5 million will go into effect this summer, constructing HWO’s next-generation hardware and the code needed to one day pull in nearby exoplanet data in rich new detail.

But in the 15 years before HWO comes online, it’s likely to face many competitors, like those who argue that alien life has already been found on exoplanet K2-18b.

Astrophysicist Jessie Christiansen who works with NASA on the search for Earth-like exoplanets has come forward to say the US space agency's planned new telescope, the Habitable Worlds Observatory (concept above), may find proof of alien life 'in our lifetime'

Three NASA contracts totaling $17.5 million will go into effect this summer, constructing HWO's next-generation hardware and code needed to one day pull in nearby exoplanet data in rich new detail. Above a front view mock-up of HWO's light and EMF collection mirror

While scientists debate James Webb’s data on K2-18b — including new research in Astrophysical Journal Letters suggesting that any alleged ‘biosignatures’ from the off-world planet are overblown — NASA’s network continues to strategize on how HWO could best provide definitive proof of ET. 

The space agency’s exoplanet team of astronomers, physicists, engineers and scientists met last January in New Orleans to consider the tools needed for the job.

Berkeley astronomer Dr Courtney Dressing, a co-leader of HWO’s Science Architecture Review Team (START), proposed kitting out HWO with the capacity to detect a ‘wide variety of biosignatures.’

So-called ‘biogenic’ gases, produced by living organisms; aerosols and other airborne pollutants; ‘surface biosignatures,’ like the infra-red heat produced by vegetation, and more artificial ‘technosignatures’ that would be made by a civilized alien race all ‘could be detectable with HWO,’ Dr Dressing noted.

But, to do better than the James Webb’s K2-18b’ analysis, for example, HWO’s architects will need to come up with even more testable signs of life.

‘Additional information about the planet and planetary system,’ Dr Dressing said, ‘[will be] required to interpret biosignatures and rule out false positives.’ 

Nevertheless, one astrophysicist who serves as chief scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the CalTech, Dr Jessie Christiansen, believes HWO could find proof of extraterrestrial life not too long after it’s launched in 2040.

‘I believe, in our lifetime, something like HWO will see a signal in the atmosphere of a rocky planet in the habitable zone of a star like our sun that we think is life,’ Christiansen told New Scientist. 

‘A big part of my job is working on that,’ as she told Pasadena Weekly last month. 

‘We’re coming up with science questions that we would want that telescope to answer,’ Dr Christiansen explained.

‘We use that to define how big of a telescope, looking at what part of space, for how long, do we need? We take that to NASA and say, “Hey, build this.”‘

The Hubble Space Telescope's focus on visual light caught many more of a galaxy's older, redder stars and younger, bluer stars (left). But the infra-red sensors on the newer James Webb proved better at imaging masses of gas and dust that were free-floating along a galaxy's spiraling arms, as well as catching a glimpse of the dense galactic core of star systems (right). In the middle image, a combined view of both telescopes' sensors

Building off of the technology and success of the James Webb telescope, NASA is developing a multi-billion successor tasked with searching for life on Earth-like planets as soon as the early 2040s. Above, another concept for this planned Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO)

Collecting electromagnetic spectra from outside the spectrum of visible light, such as infra-red and UV light, and even x-rays, is one method astronomers use to get a better sense of what is out there in the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s focus on visual light caught many more of a galaxy’s older, redder stars and younger, bluer stars, for example. 

But the infra-red sensors on the newer James Webb proved better at imaging  masses of gas and dust free-floating along a galaxy’s spiraling arms, as well as catching a glimpse of the dense galactic core of star systems.

‘We’ve been able to look at stars with such precision and such exquisite instruments that we can see planets around them,’ Dr Christiansen noted. ‘Now, we know that there are thousands of planets, and most stars have planets.’ 

But, despite over 5,000 new exoplanets logged and a few dozen Earth-like candidates she added: ‘We still haven’t found a planet like the Earth, a rocky planet in a habitable zone of a star like the sun.’

Military contractors Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace (BAE Systems) will begin their portion of the work on the HWO this summer, per NASA.

The companies’ two-year and $17.5 million effort will include building ‘ultra-stable’ optical sensor systems, which NASA hopes will be ‘beyond current state-of-the-art tech’ to help keep their HWO project working in orbit for as long as possible.

Northrop Grumman’s contribution to that effort will be a protective support to the telescope’s optical train, which they hope can ensure HWO withstands unexpected events in the harsh environment of space.

This year’s spend however is nothing compared to the $11 billion in total that NASA hopes the US government will devote to their HWO telescope.

By the end of its official mission, which will focus on directly imaging at least 25 prime candidates for potentially habitable worlds, Dr Christiansen wonders if the humanity will ever be the same.

‘It might start a revolution in life, religion, philosophy and science,’ she said, although the astrophysicist confessed that the public’s reaction might surprise her.

‘It might be a headline for a day,’ she admited, ‘and then everybody just goes back to what they were doing.’

Source: daily mail

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NASA’s alien-hunting telescope could find an inhabited planet by 2050, scientist claims/NASA’s alien-hunting telescope could find an inhabited planet by 2050, scientist claims

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