Interstellar Water: The Secret to Finding Habitable Planets With the James Webb Telescope
Life needs a couple basic things: Reasonable temperatures, a lack of stellar radiation, and liquid water.If Proxima Centauri b is any indication, finding the right mix of those three is much harder than we thought. Scientists may have found a new method that can narrow down the exoplanets that might support life: follow the water.
And by water, we mean giant clouds of ice gathered around newborn stars.
Luckily, NASA is equipped with a state-of-the-art planet-hunting device to identify interstellar water, and by extension, new habitable exoplanets: The James Webb Telescope.
When NASA launches the telescope in spring of 2019, it'll be at the forefront of humanity's quest to find extraterrestrial life in outer space.
For right now, astronomers are relying on the transit method to identify potentially habitable exoplanets: when a planet passes in front of a star, it causes a slight dip in the brightness of that star's light.
From there, astronomers have to individually examine the planet to see if it might be a good candidate for life, mostly by figuring out what that planet's atmosphere is composed of. See, every type of molecule absorbs light in a unique way, allowing astronomers to use the brightness and wavelengths of the light emitted from planets to get an idea of what they're dealing with.
Of course, it takes a long time to go from identifying a genuine exoplanet to figuring out what its atmosphere is made of.
To supplement the search for life, NASA is planning to use the same knowledge to find hypothetical clouds of water and ice around newborn stars, which will be a major indicator that the planets in that system will have the building blocks for life.
According to Melissa McClure, a NASA scientist: "If we can understand the chemical complexity of these ices in the molecular cloud, and how they evolve during the formation of a star and its planets, then we can assess whether the building blocks of life should exist in every star system."
Hopefully, the results from this new research will finally start filling in some of the blanks in the Drake Equation.