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posted by martyb on Tuesday January 07 2020, @10:32AM   Printer-friendly
from the breath dept.

A new method, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, could allow NASA's James Webb telescope to detect oxygen molecules in exoplanet atmospheres (a potential indicator of life).

As they [collide, oxygen molecules] 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.

[...] "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."

On the Earth, oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis, a process whereby living organisms convert sunlight into chemical energy. For this reason, scientists believe its presence could be an indicator of life on exoplanets.

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.​

Utilizing this collision induced absorption band at 6.4 μm, the scientists indicate that in some cases detection could occur within just a few transits.

Journal Reference: Sensitive probing of exoplanetary oxygen via mid-infrared collisional absorption$, Nature Astronomy (DOI: doi:10.1038/s41550-019-0977-7)


Original Submission

Related Stories

The Launch Date for the James Webb Space Telescope has Slipped Again 3 comments

It looks like the launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope has slipped again. It was slated to launch this coming Halloween but now it will be at mid-November at the earliest.

According to Ars Technica:

Last summer, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) set an October 31, 2021, launch date for the $10 billion telescope. The instrument, which is the largest science observatory ever placed into space, will launch on a European Ariane 5 rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana. Now, however, three considerations have pushed the launch into November or possibly early December.

[...] The launch campaign, which begins when the telescope arrives in French Guiana, requires 55 days. Asked whether this means that Webb will not launch until mid-November at the earliest, Zurbuchen said this assessment was correct.

Engadget added:

A delay of a few weeks is not much, considering the initial launch timeframe was around 2007. Still, there are reasons for optimism. Pushing back the launch by weeks rather than months or years is an indication that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter for the successor to Hubble.

Previously:

  1. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Passes Crucial Launch-Simulation Tests
  2. NASA's Webb to Examine Objects in the Graveyard of the Solar System
  3. NASA Ominously Chooses Halloween 2021 to Launch Long-Delayed Space Telescope
  4. James Webb Space Telescope Will "Absolutely" Not Launch in March
  5. New Exoplanet Life Detection Method for James Webb Telescope

Original Submission

The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's Next Great Observatory, Passes Final Ground Tests 13 comments

The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's next great observatory, passes final ground tests:

NASA and its partners working on the James Webb Space Telescope have completed their final tests of the giant observatory and are now preparing it for a trip to a South American spaceport for a launch later this year.

Conceived more than 30 years ago as a successor of the then new Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb will be the largest observatory ever to be put in orbit. It is designed to use its infrared eyes to peer further into the universe's history than ever before. With its 6.5-meter in diameter gold-plated mirror, the telescope will attempt to answer questions about the formation of first stars and galaxies out of the darkness of the early universe.

At 44 feet (13.2 meters) long and 14 feet (4.2 m) wide, the telescope is about the size of a large tractor-trailer truck, fitted with intricate sun shades that could cover a tennis court once unfolded.

The program faced many delays, not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but seems finally on track to start producing ground-breaking astronomical observations. The testing, which took place at the facilities of prime contractor Northrop Grumman in California, made sure that nothing would go wrong with the more than $10 billion spacecraft during launch and once in space.

"NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has reached a major turning point on its path toward launch with the completion of final observatory integration and testing," Gregory Robinson, Webb's program director at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "We have a tremendously dedicated workforce who brought us to the finish line, and we are very excited to see that Webb is ready for launch and will soon be on that science journey."


Original Submission

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  • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Tuesday January 07 2020, @10:56AM (3 children)

    by c0lo (156) on Tuesday January 07 2020, @10:56AM (#940584) Journal

    Note: the absence of oxygen doesn't mean absence of life; life (even on the surface) based on other chemistries (like chlorine and/or arsenic [discovermagazine.com]) is possible.

    --
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoFiw2jMy-0
    • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Tuesday January 07 2020, @12:51PM

      by hendrikboom (1125) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 07 2020, @12:51PM (#940605) Homepage Journal

      Or sulphur. Or thermosynthesis instead of photosynthesis. Both have occurred on Earth.

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Immerman on Tuesday January 07 2020, @02:45PM

      by Immerman (3985) on Tuesday January 07 2020, @02:45PM (#940638)

      Heck, life on Earth survived for almost a billion years without oxygen before photosynthesis evolved. In fact the introduction of oxygen poisoned almost all life on earth to extinction - what survives today are the descendants of the species that were able to survive such a corrosive pollutant, or even harness it as an energy source.

      The real reason oxygen is considered an indicator for life isn't because it's terribly important for life, but because life is terribly important for oxygen. Being so volatile, free oxygen will rapidly react with...pretty much everything, leaving the atmosphere oxygen free, unless there's some active process continuously replenishing it. And life is at the top of the list of processes that could do so (in fact I'm not sure we know of anything else that could do so on the scale required)

    • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Tuesday January 07 2020, @06:31PM

      by Thexalon (636) on Tuesday January 07 2020, @06:31PM (#940700)

      Note: the absence of oxygen doesn't mean absence of life; life (even on the surface) based on other chemistries (like chlorine and/or arsenic) is possible.

      It's possible, in theory, assuming that whoever did those studies didn't get something wrong. But with these kind of searches, it's reasonable to play the odds and look for places that have a kind of life that we know can work.

      --
      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
  • (Score: 2, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 07 2020, @11:02AM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 07 2020, @11:02AM (#940586)

    Launch the James Webb Space Telescope.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by hendrikboom on Tuesday January 07 2020, @12:52PM (1 child)

      by hendrikboom (1125) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday January 07 2020, @12:52PM (#940606) Homepage Journal

      And if the launch fails, let me hope that it won't cost as much to immediately build a second one, since we shouldn't have to re-do the design.

      • (Score: 1) by nitehawk214 on Tuesday January 07 2020, @03:23PM

        by nitehawk214 (1304) on Tuesday January 07 2020, @03:23PM (#940648)

        Why build one when you can build two for twice the price?

        --
        "Don't you ever miss the days when you used to be nostalgic?" -Loiosh
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