Telescope launching this year 'could find signs of alien life within five years'

Rob Waugh
·2 min read
GREENBELT, MD - NOVEMBER 02:  Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope November 2, 2016 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The telescope, designed to be a large space-based observatory optimized for infrared wavelengths, will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. It is scheduled to be launched in October 2018.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope in 2016 at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, US. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A new telescope set to launch into space this October could find signs of alien life within five years, a scientist has said. 

The 21-foot James Webb Space Telescope will be able to see across billions of light years, capturing images of distant galaxies just after they formed.

It will also offer scientists a tool to find signs of life such as the chemical ammonia in the atmosphere of distant gas dwarf planets. 

Caprice Phillips, a graduate student at the Ohio State University, said: "What really surprised me about the results is that we may realistically find signs of life on other planets in the next five to 10 years.

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"Humankind has contemplated the questions, 'Are we alone? What is life? Is life elsewhere similar to us?'

"My research suggests that for the first time, we have the scientific knowledge and technological capabilities to realistically begin to find the answers to these questions."

The £6.3bn telescope will find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb), 3d illustration, elements of this image are furnished by NASA
3D illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Getty)

It will also have the ability to examine the atmosphere of "gas dwarf" planets – super-Earths or mini-Neptunes with the potential to foster life. 

Until now, scientists have struggled to determine whether the atmosphere of gas dwarfs contain signs of life, such as ammonia. 

Importantly, the telescope will be able to do this rapidly. 

Phillips calculated that when the Webb telescope launches this October, it could feasibly detect ammonia around six gas dwarf planets after just a few orbits.

Philips and her team modelled how its instruments would respond to varying clouds and atmospheric conditions.

The team produced a ranked list of where the telescope should search for life.

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Several innovative technologies have been developed for the telescope, including a primary mirror made of 18 separate segments that unfold and adjust to shape after launch. 

The mirrors are made of ultra-lightweight beryllium. 

Its biggest feature is a tennis-court-sized five-layer sunshield that attenuates heat from the Sun more than a million times. 

The telescope’s four instruments – cameras and spectrometers – have detectors that are able to record extremely faint signals. 

One instrument (NIRSpec) has programmable microshutters, which enable observation of up to 100 objects simultaneously. 

Webb also has a cryocooler for cooling the mid-infrared detectors of another instrument to a very cold 7 kelvins (-447F) so they can work.

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