The search for life beyond Earth has entered a new phase, with many astronomers confident that they will discover it within their lifetimes. Several missions are underway or planned to explore the potential habitability of planets and moons in our solar system and beyond, reports bbc.com.
One of the most promising targets is Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons, which is thought to have a liquid water ocean beneath its frozen surface. A mission led by the European Space Agency (ESA) called JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) will launch in 2024 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030.
It will study Europa and two other icy moons, Ganymede and Callisto, for clues of life.
Dr Olivier Witasse, the project scientist for JUICE, told BBC News that he would be “surprised” if there was no life on Europa. He said that the moon has all the ingredients for life: water, energy and organic molecules.
He added that finding life on Europa would have profound implications for our understanding of our place in the Universe.
Another mission that could revolutionise the search for life is NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in December 2021. The JWST will be able to observe the atmospheres of planets orbiting distant stars, looking for signs of gases that could indicate biological activity.
One such planet is K2-18b, which is located 120 light years away and lies in the “Goldilocks zone” – the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist on its surface.
The JWST recently detected hints of a gas called methyl chloride in its atmosphere, which on Earth is produced by simple marine organisms. The team behind this discovery expects to confirm or refute it within a year.
Prof Nikku Madhusudhan, who led the study, said that finding signs of life on K2-18b would “radically change the way we think about the search for life”.
“If we find signs of life on the very first planet we study, it will raise the possibility that life is common in the Universe.”
He predicts that within five years there will be “a major transformation” in our understanding of life in the Universe.
He said that if life is found on the first planet studied by JWST, it would suggest that life is common in the Universe. He predicted that within five years there will be “a major transformation” in our knowledge of life in the cosmos.
The JWST has a list of 10 more planets in the Goldilocks zone to study, and possibly many more after that.
Prof Catherine Heymans, Scotland’s Astronomer Royal, said that we now have the technology and the capability to answer the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos. She said that many astronomers are no longer asking if there is life elsewhere, but when we will find it.