The Webb Telescope can look near as well as far away. During its first year, about 7 percent of its time will be spent observing our solar system, according to Heidi B. Hamill, an interdisciplinary scientist who worked on the development of the telescope. Webb can analyze the atmospheres of nearby planets such as Jupiter and Mars using infrared sensors. These capabilities could also be directed to some of the exoplanets closest to Earth, such as those surrounding the small star Trappist-1, 40 light-years away.
One goal of this focus is to discern a biosignature – an indication that life exists (or has been) in those worlds. On Earth, the biosignature may be the discarded shell of a clam, a fallen feather of a bird, a petrified fern submerged in sedimentary rocks. On an exoplanet, a certain proportion of gases — oxygen, methane, H₂O, and CO₂, for example — might indicate the presence of microbes or plants. Nicole Lewis, an associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University whose team has been approved for 22.5 hours of Webb observation time this year to look at Trappist-1e, one of seven planets orbiting the star Trappist-1, told me before announcing the discovery of a biomarker, She had to carefully determine the atmosphere of the planet and the possibility of habitability. She says, “First we have to see if there’s air, and then we can ask, ‘Well, what’s in the air?'” To say there is a vital signature.
Biometric and technical signatures point the same way: towards life. But for now, they are pursued by two separate scientific communities. One reason is historic: the study of biometrics — which began in the 1960s, within a new discipline of exobiology — has been supported by NASA and academic institutions for decades. But the “technical signature” was coined only recently, in 2007, by Jill Tarter, a leading figure in astronomy who has spent her career conducting research on space transmissions. Jason Wright, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and a member of Frank’s CATS group, says he believes Tarter’s idea is to “rename” the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which has long been pushed back to the scientific margins. “When Jill coined the phrase, she was trying to stress that NASA was looking for microbes, slime, and bio-fingerprints in the atmosphere, but the technical fingerprints were really under the same umbrella,” Wright told me. Wright asserts that any search for biometric fingerprints on a distant planet would logically overlap with the search for technical fingerprints, once it was time to explain the unusual observations. Does telescopic reading suggest a life-sustaining atmosphere? Or is it perhaps a sign of technology, too? In other words, scientists looking for biometrics may also encounter signs of technology.
Thus, Wright, Frank, and the rest of the CATS team are concerned about atmospheric signs that probably never would have occurred naturally. Recent cohort research, for example, originally written by Jacob Haq-Misra, a CATS member at the nonprofit Blue Marble Space Institute, looks at how CFCs, an industrial byproduct, give a distinct spectral signal It can be picked up by the web. Haq Misra was also the first author on a recent research paper indicating that An exoplanet with agriculture – “exofarms” – May emit alarming emissions into the atmosphere. Other research, written primarily by Ravi Coparabo, a CATS member who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shows that the emission of Nitrogen dioxide, an industrial byproduct, can indicate a strange technology. These emissions can be observed by NASA’s space telescope, known as LUVOIR (Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor), due for deployment after 2040. These scenarios might look like aliens running factories, for example, or aliens riding tractors. at harvest time. Unlikely, but scientists working on technical signatures are comfortable with the low odds. “If we focus on what can be discovered, based on these tools that we’re building, that’s really the key question,” Haque Misra told me.
Read more about the James Webb Space Telescope
After traveling nearly a million miles to reach a location beyond the Moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing the universe.
When I visited Wright at his office in Pennsylvania in the spring, he explained that technical signatures are not only more detectable than biometrics, perhaps, but they are also more abundant and longer-lived. He said let’s look at the earth as an example. Its technology already extends throughout the solar system. We have junk on the moon. Our rovers are cruising around Mars; We have satellites orbiting other planets. Moreover, several spacecraft — including two astronauts, two Voyagers and the New Horizons Pluto probe, all launched by NASA — are venturing beyond the edge of the solar system into interstellar space. Such technical footprints can last for billions of years. And we’re only 65 years old in the age of space exploration. An ancient civilization could seed the galaxy with thousands of technical fingerprints, making them easier to spot.
“Look, I really don’t know if there’s anything I can find,” Wright said. In 1961, he noted, Astronomer Frank Drake He introduced what is now known as the Drake equation, which consists of many variables and attempts to help calculate the number of intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. But with so little data to enter into the variables, there is still no solution to the equation.
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