Tag Archives: space telescope

The James Webb telescope could detect aliens by looking for signs of pollution

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t even fully operational yet, but researchers are getting more and more excited about what it can do. In a recent study, researchers claim we may be on the cusp of being able to discover other civilizations based on specific types of pollution in their planets’ atmosphere.

A total ozone map of the Earth. Image credits: NASA.

The alien ozone hole

Human society has changed a lot over the centuries, but the shifts in the past 200 years have been truly mind-bending. The Industrial Revolution changed how many things work, fueling, well, a revolution in our society. If you were a patient alien scouting the Earth from close by (or from farther away, but with a good enough telescope) you may have seen the signs of this industrial revolution happening through the emissions we produced by burning fossil fuels.

But they could see other forms of pollution even better.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a type of chemical notorious for causing the ozone hole in the 1980s (until regulations entered into force to address the problem). They’re produced industrially as refrigerants and cleaning agents — and if an alien civilization would resemble ours, it would likely also start producing them at some point. CFCs are also very unlikely to appear naturally so if you see them in a planet’s atmosphere, someone is producing them artificially. Furthermore, even if a civilization stops producing them or reduces their production (like we did), they still have a long life in the atmosphere, meaning they could be detected long after they’ve been produced.

This brings us to an interesting point: our most clear sign of civilization may also be one of our worst impacts on the planet — pollution. We don’t really know whether this would also be the case for an alien civilization but there’s a decent chance it is. Now, we could also have a way to detect this, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Looking for pollution on alien planets isn’t the main objective of the JWST, and its capability in this regard is limited. For instance, if a planet is too bright, it could drown out the CFC signal. So the new study focused on M-class stars — a type of dim, long-lived red dwarf. Researchers believe M-class stars make out the majority of stars in the universe.

A team of researchers led by Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, analyzed the JWST’s ability to detect CFC around a TRAPPIST-1, a typical red dwarf relatively close to Earth (40 light-years away). TRAPPIST-1 also has several Earth-sized planets within the habitable zone, so it would be a good place to start looking for alien civilizations (although M-stars, in general, aren’t considered to be conducive to life).

According to the study, there’s a good chance that the JWST could be able to detect CFC in this type of scenario.

“With the launch of JWST, humanity may be very close to an important milestone in SETI [the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence]: one where we are capable of detecting from nearby stars not just powerful, deliberate, transient, and highly directional transmissions like our own (such as the Arecibo Message), but consistent, passive technosignatures of the same strength as our own,” the researchers write in the study.

Funny enough, this detection isn’t necessarily reciprocal: just because we can detect potential CFCs around a planet doesn’t necessarily mean aliens could do the same for us. Remember when we said in order for the method to work, the planet needs to not be too bright? Well, the Sun is pretty bright, and it sends out enough light that it would obstruct much of the useful signal. So if an alien civilization were to exist closeby, there’s a chance we could be able to spot them without them being able to do the same thing to us. Of course, this is all speculation at this point, but it’s something that astronomers are looking into as JWST will soon become operational.

The telescope is currently in its calibration stage. James Webb is expected to offer researchers an unprecedented view of the universe, focusing on four main objectives:

  • light coming from the very first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang;
  • galaxy formation and evolution;
  • star formation and planet formation;
  • planetary systems and the origins of life.

The study was published in arXiv and has not been peer-reviewed yet.

Artist's illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Image Credit: NASA.

Kepler — the spacecraft that discovered thousands of alien worlds — is running on its last drops of fuel

Artist's illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Image Credit: NASA.

Artist’s illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Image Credit: NASA.

We owe a lot to NASA’s Kepler space telescope: since it launched in 2009, the space telescope has helped astronomers identified at least 2,342 exoplanets, with thousands more still to be confirmed. A few dozens of these planets are less than twice Earth’s size and orbit their parent star just close enough to potentially be habitable. Unfortunately, the planet-hunting telescope will run out of fuel within a couple of months, becoming stranded 93 million miles from home.

“With nary a gas station to be found in deep space, the spacecraft is going to run out of fuel,” Charlie Sobeck, system engineer for the Kepler space telescope mission, wrote in a news release for NASA. “We expect to reach that moment within several months.”

Kepler was initially slated for a 3.5-year-long mission but heroically marched on for many years after its warranty expired. The telescope is designed to look for planets in one small patch of sky that contains about 4.5 million stars. To identify potentially new worlds outside our solar system, Kepler detects the dimming that occurs when a planet transits a star. Imagine a moth flying in front of a spotlight — it will cause a subtle change in brightness, and the bigger the moth, the more light it blocks. Likewise, patterns of changes in the brightness of each star indicate orbiting planets. By June 2010, just 15 months after its launch, Kepler had already found over 700 potential planets.

In 2013, a malfunction almost ended the entire mission. NASA, however, was able to salvage some segments of the spacecraft’s operational capabilities and devised a new technique to observe distant worlds. Thus, the Kepler mission was reborn as “K2”, which discovered an additional 307 confirmed exoplanets and another 479 candidates.

Originally, the space telescope was set to launch with a partially filled fuel tank that would enable its thrusters to fire for a maximum of six years. But before it launched, engineers noticed that Kepler was actually below its allowed weight threshold, and filled its tank. Now, nine years after it launched, the spacecraft’s tank is nearly dry. In the meantime, scientists will surely have time to discover a couple more candidates. Who knows maybe these will be the most promising yet.

Once the fuel runs out, NASA will cut the comm-link and Kepler will officially become another heap of space junk — but at least it will be so far from Earth it won’t cause any problems (unlike the gazillion pieces of space junk currently in Earth’s low orbit). On April 16, Kepler’s replacement, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A new age of exoplanet exploration is upon us, and it couldn’t be more exciting.  

Ed Lu, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, shows the telescope of a model of the Sentinel Space Telescope during a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, June 28, 2012. The group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists on Thursday announced they plan to launch a privately-funded space telescope to search for small asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

First private space telescope is set to safeguard humanity from asteroid threats

Ed Lu, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, shows the telescope of a model of the Sentinel Space Telescope during a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, June 28, 2012. The group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists on Thursday announced they plan to launch a privately-funded space telescope to search for small asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

Ed Lu, Chairman of the B612 Foundation, shows the telescope of a model of the Sentinel Space Telescope during a news conference in San Francisco, Thursday, June 28, 2012. The group of ex-NASA astronauts and scientists on Thursday announced they plan to launch a privately-funded space telescope to search for small asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

There are millions of asteroids currently residing in our Solar System, of which some 500 thousand orbit in the inner solar system, where our planet also lies. Space agencies in the world have only mapped so far a mere 1% of these. Clearly, an asteroid impact with Earth poses a serious and realistic threat to humanity, and based on this the B612 Foundation was founded and its most ambitious project to date spurred. Thus, the B612 Foundation unveiled its plans to build, launch, and operate the first privately funded deep space mission, dubbed SENTINEL, a space telescope to be placed in orbit around the Sun, ranging up to 170 million miles from Earth, for a mission of discovery and mapping.

“During its 5.5-year mission survey time, Sentinel will discover and track half a million Near Earth Asteroids, creating a dynamic map that will provide the blueprint for future exploration of our Solar System, while protecting the future of humanity on Earth,” said Ed Lu, Space Shuttle, Soyuz, and Space Station Astronaut, now Chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation.

The B612 Foundation is working with Ball Aerospace, Boulder, CO, which has designed and will be building the Sentinel Infrared (IR) Space Telescope with the same expert team that developed the Spitzer and Kepler Space Telescopes. The telescope is expected to include a 20-inch diameter mirror and scan the entire night half of the sky every 26 days to identify every moving object with repeated observations in subsequent months. Data collected by the telescope will be relayed back to Earth where asteroid orbits can be precisely deducted using specialized software. The asteroid map will be shared with universities and governmental space agencies, alike.

While Sentinel’s primary goal is that of mapping asteroids to predict potential threatening scenarios, its mission could also pose an economic benefit. There are currently trillions of dollars worth of valuable material present in asteroids in our solar system, and identifying those which are the most rich and easy to reach by an expedition could prove to be highly important in the future.

“The B612 Sentinel mission extends the emerging commercial spaceflight industry into deep space – a first that will pave the way for many other ventures,” said the former Director of NASA Ames Research Center Dr. Scott Hubbard, B612 Foundation Program Architect and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. “Mapping the presence of thousands of near earth objects will create a new scientific database and greatly enhance our stewardship of the planet.”

B612 Foundation via Next Big Future