NASA scientists reveal their plan for finding life beyond Earth

On July 14, a panel of experts in astronomy and engineering met at the NASA headquarters to discuss the newly developing technology that could help us discover life on other planets.

Charles Bolden, administrator of NASA, opened the discussion by recounting the discoveries made by the Kepler Space Telescope. “Over the course of its life [the telescope] has shown that our galaxy is host to billions of planets and planetary systems, that small planets the size of Earth are common and that planets come in astonishing diversity.”

As our understanding of this diversity increases, so does the possibility of finding life on other planets—but how can we search for life beyond earth?

The panellists proposed that the answer lies in the James Webb Space Telescope, a highly advanced tool that is poised to shoot into space in October of 2018.

The telescope will collect data in space, looking for planets with habitable conditions such as signs of greenhouse gases.

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To ensure that the telescope works properly, NASA is rehearsing and testing it at various sites throughout the US in both extremely hot and cold conditions. The team is building two of every component of the telescope, designing it with several panels that unfold to collect solar power and collect data.

One of the many difficulties in detecting habitable planets is that planets can be billions of times fainter than their parent stars, making it challenging to detect and photograph them.

However, the designers of the James Webb Telescope have developed a device called a starshade to combat this problem. The starshade’s flower shape helps block out light from the parent star for a clearer view of the planet.

The telescope also uses lightweight replicated optics to create a larger but less weighty design, compactable because of its folding elements.

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While the James Webb Telescope does not guarantee any groundbreaking discoveries, it is the next step in a graduated approach to finding life in space. First, the telescope will help us learn how to characterise atmospheres of other planets and determine signs of life.

According to planetary scientist Sara Seager, the shift towards big data is playing an integral role in potential discoveries, as well. “It will be the new discoveries and the statistics, having lots of the same object, knowing how many numbers there are and what their distribution is. I think our hope is… understanding planet formation.

“Only with more and more data, covering all of the regimes of planets possible, can we start to understand planet formation in detail.”

Then, the next generation of scientists must take this understanding gained from the James Webb Telescope and develop an even more sophisticated technology that is lighter and more powerful to continue the progress.


Images courtesy of NASA. Watch the full discussion here


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