No, the James Webb Space Telescope hasn't been able to find life there, at least not yet

Zoom in / An artist's impression of K2-18b and its clouds.

Rumors have been around for a while, spreading through respected corners of the astronomy and astrobiology community, that the James Webb Space Telescope has found a planet with strong evidence of life.

Some of these sentiments recently came into public view when the British news magazine The Spectator reported Posted an item Titled “Did We Just Discover Aliens?” According to Betteridge's law of addressesThe answer to the question posed in this title is no.

But is it difficult not to? This is a more difficult question. The Spectator featured comments from some serious British scientists, including astrophysicist Rebecca Smethurst, who said: “I think we will have a paper with strong evidence of a biosignature on an exoplanet very soon.”

Additionally, there was British astronaut Tim Peake fanning the flames with this comment: “The James Webb Telescope has likely already discovered [alien life]“It's just that they don't want to publish or confirm these results until they are completely sure, but we have found a planet that appears to be giving off strong signals of biological life.”

K2-18B or not K2-18B

To get some answers, I went straight to the source, asking officials at NASA, responsible for the Webb Telescope, whether they had found life (or, at least, strong evidence of life on another planet orbiting a non-star). Our area). The answer, again, was no. But it was no Difficult number.

“The James Webb Space Telescope has not found conclusive evidence of life on an exoplanet,” said Kencol Colon, deputy project scientist for the telescope for exoplanet science. “James Webb Space Telescope observations are expected to lead to the initial identification of potential biosignatures that could make a given exoplanet more or less habitable. Future missions will be needed to conclusively determine the habitability of an exoplanet.”

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Although she didn't say so, Kowloon is definitely referring to K2-18 b, an exoplanet 8.6 times Earth's mass that is 120 light-years from our solar system. Astronomers think this may be an exoplanet, meaning it has water oceans on its surface and a hydrogen-rich atmosphere.

Astronomers had previously studied this planet using the Hubble Space Telescope, but their interest doubled when the Webb Telescope – which began operating last year after launching in late 2022 – studied this planet.He made some interesting observations. Among the molecules Webb found was dimethyl sulfide.

Answers are coming

So what is dimethyl sulfide? It's an organic compound that you might smell if you've ever cooked cabbage. They are emitted by phytoplankton in the Earth's oceans as part of the metabolic process. Importantly, on Earth, dimethyl sulfide is produced only by life. This does not prove life existed on K2-18 b, but if dimethyl sulfide is present there, it is certainly troubling evidence.

I've also spoken with a couple of other scientists who will know whether or not we've discovered life on an exoplanet, but who may not be willing to say so publicly.

So, here, as best I can tell, is the real story. Scientists are certainly intrigued by Webb's observations of the exoplanet K2-18 b. However, there is a strong ongoing debate about the telescope's measurements of water, methane, and dimethyl sulfide. It is promising but not conclusive. As Colon said, we need more data and perhaps new tools to make a final decision.

So the full story has yet to be told.

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If this discovery were a movie star Wars, we're at the point where Luke Skywalker just rode up Mos Eisley in the Landspeeder. There's a lot of story to go before he blows up the Death Star and saves the Rebellion (or finds alien life). The truth is that science is rarely as conclusive or as rapid as we would like it to be, but it does eventually get to the truth. So let's try to enjoy the ride.

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