Want Aliens? Launch a Monster Space Telescope

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Humanity will probably have to wait a few decades to find out if life is common beyond our own solar system.

Dr. Ian O'Neill, space producer for Discovery News, steps in to discuss some of the ways scientists are working to detect signs of life on other worlds.

While NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — which is scheduled to launch in 2018 — will be capable of finding signs of life on nearby exoplanets, a broad and bona fide hunt for life beyond Earth's neighborhood will require bigger spacecraft that aren't even on the agency's books yet, experts say.

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"To find evidence of actual life is going to take another generation of telescopes," JWST telescope scientist Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said during a NASA briefing Monday (July 14). "And to do that, we're going to need new rockets, new approaches to getting into space, new approaches to large telescopes — highly advanced optical systems." [10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]

A Chance to Find Signs of Life

The $8.8 billion JWST features 18 hexagonal mirror segments that will work together to form one 21-foot-wide (6.5 meters) mirror — larger than any other mirror that's ever flown in space, NASA officials said. (For comparison, the agency's iconic Hubble Space Telescope sports an 8-foot, or 2.4 m, primary mirror.)

JWST is optimized to view in infrared light. The telescope should be able to do lots of different things during its operational life, researchers say, including scanning the atmospheres of alien planets for oxygen and other gases that could be produced by living organisms. (Such delicate work is best performed by space telescopes, which don't have to look through Earth's atmosphere.)

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JWST will work in concert with another NASA space mission in this regard, performing follow-up observations on promising nearby worlds found by the agency's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is scheduled to blast off in 2017.

"With the James Webb, we have our first chance — our first capability of finding signs of life on another planet," MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager said during Monday's NASA briefing. "Now nature just has to provide for us." [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

A Numbers Game

But nature may not be so willing, at least during the JWST mission, Seager and other experts stress. And it all comes down to numbers.

There is no shortage of planets in the Milky Way. Our galaxy teems with at least 100 billion planets, 10 to 20 percent of which, Mountain said, likely circle in their host star's "habitable zone" — that just-right range of distances that could allow liquid water to exist on a world's surface. If there's nothing terribly special about Earth, then life should be common throughout the cosmos, many scientists think.