The James Webb Space Telescope will be focusing its eyes on the TRAPPIST-1 planets to search for signs of life, US space agency NASA has revealed in a press release.
Once the James Webb telescope is operational it will be able to observe the planets in infrared, beyond the capabilities we currently have. According to NASA, if any of these planets have atmospheres, the telescope will provide us vital information about it.
While James Webb telescope will definitely study the star system, NASA has said that its other telescopes including Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will be observing the planets in the mean time to garner as much information as possible about them as well as the entire star system.
The Webb telescope is expected to launch in 2018 and once operational it will be using spectroscopy which is a method of analysing light by separating it into distinct wavelengths. This particular method allows astronomers to identify the chemical components (by their unique wavelength signatures) to determine the atmospheric components of alien worlds. The telescope will seek chemical biomarkers, like ozone and methane that can be created from biological processes.
Ozone, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation on Earth, forms when oxygen produced by photosynthetic organisms synthesises in light.
Since the ozone is largely dependent on the existence of organisms to form, Webb will look for it in alien atmospheres as a possible indicator of life.
It will also be able to look for methane, which will help determine a biological source of the oxygen that leads to ozone accumulation.
The discovery of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system means that Webb will be able to use its immense capabilities on a relatively nearby system.
Researchers recently identified three promising planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system – e, f and g – which orbit in the habitable zone and would make good candidates Webb to study.
Depending upon their atmospheric composition, all three of these Earth-like exoplanets could have the appropriate conditions for supporting liquid water.
Since the planets orbit a star that is small, the signal from those planets will be relatively large, and just strong enough for Webb to detect atmospheric features.