NASA’s new telescope may have made biggest ‘discovery of the century’

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope might have made what one expert is hailing as the “discovery of the century” — about 744 trillion miles from Earth.

A team of international astronomers have “found potential evidence of life in the atmosphere of another world,” Robert Zubrin, an American aerospace engineer and advocate for human exploration of Mars, reported in the National Review.

The team, led by Cambridge University professor Nikku Madhusudhan, announced their findings Sept. 11, and the results were accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Using the data from the new telescope, the experts found methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of K2-18b, an exoplanet in the “Goldilocks region” — a habitable zone where planets orbit at the “just right” distance from a star, neither too hot nor too cold to host liquid water and by extension to potentially support life.

The star in this case, K12-18, is a K-type red dwarf located about 110 light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. K stars are dimmer than the sun but brighter than the faintest stars, according to NASA.

Red dwarfs are too dim to see with the naked eye and make up the galaxy’s largest population of stars, according to Their dimness helps prolong their lifespans, which are greater than the sun’s.

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K2-18B is 8.6 times as large as Earth, yet smaller than Neptune, leading to it being classified as a “sub-Neptune” planet — one of the most common exoplanet categories.

The news has excited astronomers and pundits on social media, with one British science reporter exclaiming: “This is pretty huge. If confirmed, it’d be the biggest hint of alien life discovered so far.”

NASA illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like
NASA illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18b could look like.
NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI

“Important in seeking extraterrestrial life is to ‘follow the water.’ The more exoplanets we find in habitable zones, the greater the chance that they’ll be able to support some form of life, and eventually, we’ll detect the signature of such life,” an Australian academic wrote.

“We need to keep looking through using serious scientific processes,” he added. “At some point, perhaps years or decades hence, and with enough time and with investment in the right technology, we’ll find the evidence that answers the most basic scientific question facing humanity — ‘Are we alone?’

However, the surface of K12-18b appears to consist mostly — or entirely — of liquid water, which would make the distant world a “hycean,” a portmanteau of “hydrogen” and “ocean.”

While its atmosphere consists of mainly hydrogen, along with small amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, the telescope also found possible trace amounts of dimethyl sulfide (DMS).

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DMS is considered to be a biomarker — evidence of life — and is found on Earth only as an artifact of microbial metabolism. However, the data for DMS on K12-18b is not yet conclusive.

Pending the existence of DMS on K12-18b being confirmed, researchers believe that the planet could be our best bet yet of discovering life outside of the solar system.

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