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Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life: Scientists Believe It's Just a Matter of Time


Many astronomers have shifted their focus from asking whether life exists elsewhere in the Universe to when we will discover it. There's a growing sense of optimism that we might detect signs of life on a distant celestial body within our lifetime, possibly in the coming years. Some scientists even go as far as suggesting it would be surprising if life didn't exist on one of Jupiter's icy moons.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recently offered tantalizing hints at the possibility of life on a planet beyond our Solar System, and it's set to investigate more worlds in the future. Several ongoing or upcoming missions mark a new space race in pursuit of one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever.

Professor Catherine Heymans, Scotland's Astronomer Royal, notes that we now have the technology and capability to answer the question of whether we're alone in the cosmos, given the vastness of the Universe.

Advanced telescopes can now analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting distant stars, searching for chemical markers that, on Earth, are produced by living organisms. A recent discovery hinted at the presence of a gas typically produced by marine organisms on a planet called K2-18b, located 120 light years away. This planet resides in the "Goldilocks zone," where conditions are just right for liquid water to exist—a key ingredient for life.

Within a year, researchers expect to either confirm or dismiss these tantalizing hints, potentially revolutionizing our understanding of life's prevalence in the Universe. Professor Nikku Madhusudhan of Cambridge University predicts that within five years, our understanding of life beyond Earth will undergo a major transformation.

If the team doesn't find life signs on K2-18b, they have a list of 10 more Goldilocks planets to study, with the possibility of more in the future. Even a lack of findings would provide valuable insights into the potential for life on such planets.

While the JWST is a powerful tool, it has limitations and cannot detect smaller, Earth-like planets or those too close to their parent stars due to glare. Therefore, NASA is planning the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO) for the 2030s, which uses a high-tech sunshield to minimize starlight interference, allowing it to examine the atmospheres of Earth-like planets.

Additionally, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), set to come online later this decade, boasts a massive 39-meter mirror and will scrutinize planetary atmospheres with unparalleled detail.

All three telescopes employ a well-established chemical analysis technique to study the light emitted by planetary atmospheres, even from tiny pinpricks of light hundreds of light years away.