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First Signs: Finding Life on Another Planets

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s most ambitious scientific experiment. It is the successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, and will be 100x more powerful. The Webb Telescope, taller than a four-story building, is designed to answer some of the most puzzling scientific questions that humankind faces today. "How did the Universe form?", "Is our Solar System unique?", and "Are we alone?" Webb will answer these questions, and many more, by taking the deepest and clearest pictures of the cosmos to date. But JWST is not alone. JWST discoveries will rely on the findings of precursor telescopes like Kepler, which has already discovered dozens of Earth-size planets, or the upcoming WFIRST and TESS missions. Our panel will examine the important contributions these telescopes will make in the search for life in the Universe, and set the stage for how JWST could find the first signs of life on another planet.

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Questions Answered

  1. What are the origins of life? We live in cosmic isolation on a small world – the only bastion of life we know. Each new planetary discovery brings the chance we will find life among the stars, though signs of it still elude us. Building on precursor telescopes like Kepler, JWST will scrutinize planets around nearby stars for the fingerprint of water vapor. JWST might even measure the chemical by-products of life: an abundance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane in a world’s atmosphere.
  2. How many habitable worlds are out there? Our own Milky Way galaxy sparkles with the radiance of more than 100 billion stars. Our Sun and its planets have been residents of this galaxy for 4.5 billion years. But even our own planet and Sun have yet to give up the secrets of their origins. JWST will be looking deep into stellar nurseries elsewhere in the galaxy, and help us finally understand the genesis of planets like Earth.
  3. Astronomy is a team sport: how will we find habitable worlds? NASA is facing the challenge of the emergence of life in the Universe with a series of mission. Kepler has discovered dozens of Earth-size planets. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS – 2017 launch) will discover thousands of exoplanets orbiting nearby stars. The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will determine if planetary systems like our own are common. JWST will follow-up all suitable candidates.
  4. Is Earth a typical planet? Thousands of known exoplanets and planet candidates have been found. They appear to be very diverse in terms of sizes, masses, orbits, and host star types. This diversity must be related to the process of planetary formation, which is still shrouded in mystery. One element of this mystery is how planets settle down into their final orbits. TESS, WFIRST and JWST will help us find planets in the “habitable zone”: a safe distance from their star where water is liquid.
  5. What technological advances are involved in making the JWST a reality? At the time the JWST mission was envisioned, more than 10 technologies to make it happen did not exist. These included making a 21 foot segmented beryllium primary mirror, a microshutter array to enable hundreds of spectroscopic observations simultaneously, and the cryo-cooler for the mid-infrared instrument. The JWST project successfully created all of these technologies, and now US companies are benefitting.



Alberto Conti Space Telescope Science Institute

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