Professor Shimon Lerner

Exoplanets, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Origin of Life in the Universe

The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch around March 2021, is set to become NASA’s flagship space astronomy telescope as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. This multinational, multibillion dollar scientific endeavor will provide scientists with an astonishing view of the Infra-red radiation from all planets and stars, at unprecedented resolution.

One of the core missions of the telescope is: to study planetary systems and the origins of life. Utilizing its detailed access to the spectroscopic properties of exoplanets (planets beyond our own solar system), it will be able to tell us in depth about their atmospheres, and perhaps even find traces of life. Coming in the wake of the discoveries of the Kepler Space Telescope, which have allowed scientists to confirm nearly 4,000 such exoplanets (see https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/), this will give us our best shot at identifying other sources of life in the universe.

Seemingly the less exciting prospect, the lack of any such signal could nevertheless provide a unique opportunity. Instead of using the Drake equation in its customary form (to estimate the probability of life elsewhere in the universe), we will be in position to turn the calculation around. In this scenario, the more exoplanets we analyze without discovering spectroscopic signatures of life, provides an upper bound on the very probability of life formation itself. With the advent of the new generation of space telescopes, the lower we can bring this number, the more appreciative we must become for the miracle of life on Earth.