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James Webb Space Telescope in Space
James Webb Space Telescope in Space "Elements of this image furnished by NASA "

News From the Search for Extraterrestrial Life 3

The Webb gets a good closer look at an exoplanet

Exoplanets are hard to spot but the James Webb Space Telescope got an image of one (HIP 65426b), reported September 1:

The planet is more than 10,000 times fainter than its host star and about 100 times farther from it than Earth is from the Sun (~93 million miles), so it easily could be spotted when the telescope’s coronagraphs removed the starlight. The exoplanet is between six and 12 times the mass of Jupiter—a range that could be narrowed once the data in these images is analyzed. The planet is only 15 million to 20 million years old, making it very young compared to our 4.5-billion-year-old Earth.

Isaac Schultz, “See Webb Telescope’s First Images of an Exoplanet” at Gizmodo (September 1, 2022)

At Forbes, science writer Eric Mack sees the image as a major breakthrough in the search for alien life:

No one is expecting gas giant planet HIP 65426 b to be a likely candidate for hosting life as we know it, but scientists are hopeful that Webb and other upcoming instruments may be able to directly image smaller and more Earth-like planets.

Of course, if Webb were ever to point at a planet and see signs of alien megastructures reminiscent of the Death Star or an armada of advanced spacecraft, we’ll have some serious discussions to have as a species.

Eric Mack, “NASA’s Latest James Webb Telescope Breakthrough Is A Huge Step In Searching For Alien Life” at Forbes (September 1, 2022)

Most of us are happy to settle for the small, Earth-like planets.

The Webb also turned up a star whose concentric ripples have a “strange squarish shape” (Space.com):

Closer to home:

Jupiter’s moon Europa’s oceans are not science fiction so getting the best value from the Europa Clipper’s upcoming visit requires strategy :

One way to study Europa is to look at similar environments here on Earth. Scientists say that conditions found under Earth’s Antarctic ice shelf provides an analog to Europa’s subsurface ocean and can help them determine how the moon’s ice shell accretes and grows.

A new study published in the journal Astrobiology looked at a unique phenomenon in the Antarctic ocean called underwater snow. This is where ice floats upwards onto the bottom of the ice shelf and attaches in fluffy-looking mounds. This helps to replenish the ice shelf. The study infers that the same phenomenon is likely true for Jupiter’s moon, and may play a role in building and replenishing its exterior ice shell.

Nancy Atkinson, “This is What a Robotic Explorer Might See When it Reaches Europa’s Oceans” at Universe Today (August 27, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

Still closer to home:

Weird geology in a dried-up lake on Mars:

The Jezero Crater, located in Syrtis Major Planum between the Northern Lowlands and Southern Highlands, measures about 45 km (28 mi) in diameter and is believed to have once been a lake. This region was specifically selected as the landing site for Perseverance, which has been exploring the large deposits of rocks and clay minerals deposited at its western edge, where water once flowed into the crater. Like Curiosity, the purpose is to learn more about the periods when Mars had flowing water on its surface so scientists can get a better idea of how (and when) it transitioned to the cold, arid planet it is today…

“We were quite surprised to find rocks stacked up at an inclined angle. We were expecting to see horizontal rocks on the crater floor. The fact that they are tilted like this requires a more complex geologic history. They could have been formed when molten rock rose up towards the surface, or, alternatively, they could represent an older delta deposit buried in the crater floor.”

Matt Williams, “The Geology at Jezero Crater is Even More Complex Than Scientists Were Expecting” at Universe Today (August 31, 2022)

Whatever happened to Mars might — or might not — have happened to exoplanets.

And way TOO close to home…!

In other news, the White House wants, we are told, to put off funding a telescope NASA is asking for, to keep an eye on near-Earth asteroids:

The space agency estimates there are about 25,000 asteroids of at least 140 meters in diameter near Earth’s orbit. While the odds of them crashing into our planet at any given time are minuscule, Congress directed NASA to find 90% of them by 2020. Scientists have found fewer than half.

But for reasons it has not publicly explained, the administration has proposed delaying by two years, until 2028, the launch of an infrared space telescope meant to find those threatening asteroids and sharply cutting its budget for next year. One space policy advocate called the move “baffling.”

Jack Fitzpatrick, “White House pushes to delay killer asteroid telescope” at Futurism (September 1, 2022)

Many asteroids of 20 meters or less hit Earth without causing much damage — not compared to the 10- to 15-kilometer asteroid that is believed to have resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Even the little ones can be significant. The one that hit Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 was “about the size of a six-story building.” With so much of the Earth under human management, asteroid damage becomes a bigger concern.

We trust that this won’t end up as a movie… in a far-future galaxy far, far away.

While we are here…

Science fiction is not just a waste of time. Many professional astronomers first became interested in serious science through reading good quality science fiction:

Planetary scientists Colin Pillinger and John Zarnecki, and cosmologist Stephen Hawking often cited their SF interests. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously talked about his fannish admiration of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books on his Cosmos program. Rocket designer Hermann Oberth wrote SF, which caught the eye of astronomer Lyman Spitzer (of Spitzer Space Telescope fame). In addition, there are many scientists who have written creditable SF stories. These include Patrick Moore, Isaac Asimov, David Brin, Vonda McIntyre, and many others who used their science to inform fiction.

Carolyn Collins Petersen, “Science Fiction was an Inspiration for Many Professional Astronomers” at Universe Today (August 30, 2022)


One reason for confidence that there is life out there is that our universe is fine-tuned for life. One example University of Western Australia cosmologist Luke Barnes offers is the free parameters of the Standard Model of our universe (values that are not derived from the model itself):

The standard model of particle physics has 25 free parameters which are constrained by experiment. Many of these play a crucial role in providing the complexity required by life.

The Higgs field “gives mass” to the fundamental particles of the standard model. We can write their masses in terms of the vacuum expectation value (vev) of the field (v) as mf = Γf v/√2, where Γf is the particle’s dimensionless Yukawa parameter. As with vacuum energy, quantum corrections to the bare Higgs vev are predicted to be of the same order as the scale up to which we trust the theory. The observed value of v = 1.0 × 10−17 is unnaturally small.

Luke Barnes, “The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Life” at ArXiv (October 18, 2021)

Unnaturally small?

You may also wish to read:

News from the search for extraterrestrial life I: Super-Earths that might have life, choosing life forms to take to Mars, and self-replicating robots… NASA is looking at developing a swarm of tiny robots to look for extraterrestrial life on oceanic worlds like Europa or Enceladus. (August 20, 2022)


News from the search for extraterrestrial life 2: A new ocean planet, a planet with carbon dioxide, and new discoveries about life chances on Mars. Progress? We now need the Artemis Accords to divvy up nations’ rights re Moon exploration — and the far side might host a telescope better than the Webb. One reason for hope for finding life elsewhere in the universe is that the universe appears to be fine-tuned for life. What the universe won’t do is tell us where the life is.

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News From the Search for Extraterrestrial Life 3