NASA could find alien planets that host life after new oxygen breakthrough

Scientists have found a new way of finding oxygen on distant planets that could help them discover alien life.

The technique could be used by Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope to sniff oxygen on planets in distant solar systems.

That in turn could help discover planets that are alive, and could be home to extraterrestrial life.

One of the possible indicators of life on other planets is oxygen in its atmosphere. On Earth, oxygen is created when living organisms convert sunlight into chemical energy – and scientists think the same might happen on Earth.

Now scientists hope that the new technique could allow them to spot the same signal coming from other planets, and in so doing perhaps spot planets that might be home to alien life.

 Nasa’s groundbreaking decade of space exploration: In pictures

Mystic Mountain, a pillar of gas and dust standing at three-light-years tall, bursting with jets of gas flom fledgling stars buried within, was captured by Nasa’s Hubble Space Telelscope in February 2010
 
The first ever selfie taken on an alien planet, captured by Nasa’s Curiosity Rover in the early days of its mission to explore Mars in 2012
Death of a star: This image from Nasa’s Chandra X-ray telescope shows the supernova of Tycho, a star in our Milky Way galaxy
Arrokoth, the most distant object ever explored, pictured here on 1 January 2019 by a camera on Nasa’s New Horizons spaceraft at a distance of 4.1 billion miles from Earth
An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy seen in infrared light by the Herschel Space Observatory in January 2012. Regions of space such as this are where new stars are born from a mixture of elements and cosmic dust.
 
The first ever image of a black hole, captured by the Event Horizon telescope, as part of a global collaboration involving Nasa, and released on 10 April 2019. The image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides about 54 million light-years from Earth
Pluto, as pictured by Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft as it flew over the dwarf planet for the first time ever in July 2015

Nasa/APL/SwRI
 
A coronal mass ejection as seen by the Chandra Observatory in 2019. This is the first time that Chandra has detected this phenomenon from a star other than the Sun
Dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks running downhill on the surface Mars were believed to be evidence of contemporary flowing water. It has since been suggested that they may instead be formed by flowing sand
Morning Aurora: Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly captured this photograph of the green lights of the aurora from the International Space Station in October 2015

The breakthrough, described in a new paper published in Nature Astronomy, allows Nasa’s telescope to detect one of the signals that comes from oxygen molecules when they collide with each other. As they do, they block out a specific part of the infrared spectrum, and the new telescope will be able to see that and give scientists a clue to the distant worlds’ atmosphere.

Technology like the James Webb Space Telescope is the best hope for examining such distant planets, since they are too far away to ever visit or even to see in much detail, but it requires incredible advanced technology because of the weakness of the signals.

“Before our work, oxygen at similar levels as on Earth was thought to be undetectable with Webb,” Thomas Fauchez, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“This oxygen signal is known since the early 1980s from Earth’s atmospheric studies but has never been studied for exoplanet research.”

Spotting oxygen on a planet might not be a guarantee that something lives there. Scientists have proposed alternative explanations that could create oxygen on exoplanets, and so it might not be a definitive indication that the world is alive.​

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