June 14, 2024

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Finding the most promising signs of life on another planet, courtesy of James Webb

Finding the most promising signs of life on another planet, courtesy of James Webb

Scientists are focusing on detecting dimethyl sulfide (DMS) in its atmosphere.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most powerful telescope ever launched, is set to begin a crucial observing mission in the search for extraterrestrial life.

As reported times, The telescope will focus on a distant planet orbiting a red dwarf star, K2-18b, located 124 light-years away.

K2-18b has captured scientists' attention due to its ability to harbor life. It is believed to be a world covered by oceans and about 2.6 times larger than Earth.

The key element scientists are looking for is dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a gas with a remarkable property. According to NASA, DMS is produced on Earth only by life, primarily by marine phytoplankton.

The presence of DMS in K2-18b's atmosphere would be an important discovery, although Dr. Niku Madhusudan, the study's lead astrophysicist from Cambridge, cautions against jumping to conclusions. While preliminary data from the James Webb Space Telescope indicate a high probability (more than 50%) of the presence of the DMS, further analysis is needed. The telescope will devote eight hours of observation on Friday, followed by months of data processing before arriving at a definitive answer.

The lack of a known natural, geological, or chemical process to generate DMS in the absence of life adds weight to the excitement. However, even if this is confirmed, the enormous distance between K2-18b represents a technological hurdle. Traveling at the speed of the Voyager spacecraft (38,000 mph), it would take the probe 2.2 million years to reach the planet.

Despite its enormous distance, the James Webb Space Telescope's ability to analyze the chemical composition of a planet's atmosphere through spectroscopic analysis of starlight filtering through its clouds provides a new window into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This mission holds the potential to answer the age-old question of whether we are truly alone in the universe.

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Upcoming observations also aim to clarify the presence of methane and carbon dioxide in K2-18b's atmosphere, potentially solving the “missing methane problem” that has puzzled scientists for more than a decade. While theoretical work on non-biological sources of the gas continues, final conclusions are expected within the next four to six months.