Some of the world’s leading astronomers, from Cambridge and Harvard universities, are coming together in an attempt to finally solve two of the biggest questions in science – how did life begin and does it exist elsewhere in the universe?
They argue that success in a mission of this kind is far more likely now than it might have been even a few years ago thanks to powerful new telescopes, which give them unprecedented opportunities to identify extraterrestrial life.
As such, they believe they could discover “thousands” of distant planets that bear possible signs of extraterrestrial life over the next 10 to 20 years using telescopes such as James Webb to scan the cosmos for habitable worlds.
“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” says Professor Didier Queloz, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering the first planet outside our solar system in the 1990s and is a key member of the new ET drive.
“Together, scientists will explore the chemical and physical processes of living organisms and environmental conditions hospitable to supporting life on other planets,” he said.
Professor Queloz said it would be “foolish to predict” when extraterrestrial life might be discovered, adding that the mission to return rock samples from Mars within the next decade could provide the first clues.
And he cautioned that “humanity has a long way to go before we fully understand the fundamental aspects of what life is and how it forms”.
But he is hopeful of making substantial leaps in understanding in the coming years and decades.
“We are working on it. Hopefully within my lifetime I will see something significant. Whether we will find life on another planet? Maybe we will find this on Mars in ten years. Maybe in a couple of years someone with the James Webb telescope will detect an atmosphere that will look Earth-like,” said 57-year old Professor Didier.
“Or maybe we will find out that most planets have no atmosphere and realise we are bloody lucky on Earth.”
He added that scientists are looking for signs of Earth-like life, but said that life may take different forms elsewhere in the universe as there may be more than one chemical “scenario leading to life”.
Meanwhile, Cambridge scientist Emily Mitchell, who is also part of the new push to find extraterrestrial life, said it is “very likely” that astronomers will eventually find strong clues that life exists beyond the Earth because ET life is almost certainly “quite common” across the Universe.
She was speaking at the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference in Washington, where the so-called Origins Federation project, which also includes Chicago University and ETH Zürich in Switzerland, was announced today.
More than 5,300 planets in orbits around other stars, known as exoplanets, have been discovered so far, including one in another galaxy. There are likely to be “trillions more in the Milky Way galaxy alone”, scientists said at the conference.
The James Webb Space Telescope can capture the starlight passing through a distant planet’s atmosphere and analyse it for clues that the atmosphere’s chemical makeup may have been altered by living organisms. These clues are described as “biosignatures”.
The presence of oxygen, water or methane on their own would not be enough to point towards life, as these can be produced by other inorganic processes.
“But if you have oxygen, water and methane [together] you could be like: ‘Yeah, that’s definitely life’,” said Dr Mitchell.
She and her fellow astronomers are seeking to determine whether it was a fluke that single-celled life developed on Earth and evolved into complex animals over billions of years, or whether this process has been repeated all over the cosmos anywhere where the conditions are right.
“We’ve only got one biosignature, here on Earth,” Mitchell said, “but if we have in 10 or 20 years, as my optimistic colleagues suggest, thousands of biosignatures we can start addressing that [question].”
“There is this wonderful potential that if we have enough biosignatures we can do the number-crunching and try to work out how we compare to life on other planets,” she said.