Alien Life: Not If but When

Are we alone? This is the question that has been floating around the globe for centuries. Inspiring many films and folklore throughout the years, it challenged our creativity and gave us a new means to both scare children and speculate on what is possible. However, with technology being slowly upgraded and new discoveries being unearthed, scientists are beginning to change the question from an ‘if’ to a ‘when’.

A Planet that’s just right

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a space telescope created to use infrared technology to observe the universe in extreme detail. It can detect objects up to 100 times fainter than the famous Hubble Telescope, allowing us to see the formation of the first stars and galaxies. Crucial info when it comes to understanding our universe!

Recent information uncovered by the telescope has had scientists on the edge of their seats as they wait for the big discovery: Aliens. The JWST has gained the first pieces of evidence for life outside our solar system, in an area around a distant sun called the goldilocks zone.

The goldilocks zone is a section around a sun in which a planet would be at the perfect temperature to support life. Neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right for liquid water to be present. JWST has spotted a planet with these rare conditions orbiting a cool dwarf star around 120 lightyears away from earth, dubbed K2-18b by astronomers. On top of confirming its position in the goldilocks zone, the JWST may also have found evidence for the presence of dimethyl dioxide in K2-18b’s atmosphere. As far as we know from studying life on our own planet, this gas is only produced by living organisms. This has, however, been deemed ‘not robust’, and more research will need to be conducted to form solid proof of life.

HabEx: The Alien Observatory

The JWST does however have its limitations. Earth’s size and proximity to the sun cause it to have the perfect conditions to support life. But JWST would be unable to get a clear view of another planet of the same proportions due to the glare (K2-18b is 8x bigger).

To combat this issue, NASA has conceptualised the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, also known as HabEx. While the JWST is mostly optimised to all aspects of space exploration, HabEx will be especially modified for researching into potentially habitable worlds. Such as searching for habitability and bio-signs like water, ammonia or cobalt.

 The observatory will allow us to search and image exoplanets that are the size of earth and in the Goldilocks zone of their suns. It will help us see into the universe outside of our solar system and discover the frequency of extra-terrestrial worlds along with their characteristics. First proposed in 2016 and scheduled for completion in 2030, HabEx will be a huge leap forward in the search for alien life.

The Final Countdown

Although there have been setbacks, the team of researchers working on this project expect to know in around a year’s time if the hints at life on K2-18b are still solid or have faded. Leader of the study Professor Nikku Madhusudhan stated that “If we find signs of life on the very first planet we study, it will raise the possibility that life is common in the Universe.”. However, even if the team is unable to find further evidence for life on K2-18b, there is a plethora goldilocks worlds waiting to be researched. At least 10! The professor makes the point that even finding nothing would "provide important insights into the possibility of life on such planets". These huge advancements have got us just one step closer to answering one of the biggest questions known to man: Are we alone? And the answer is increasingly appearing to be no.