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James Webb Telescope

  • In their search for life on other planets, scientists say they want to start using a new sense: smell.
  • They’re hoping that by sniffing out and tracking down chemicals like methane and carbon dioxide via telescope, they’ll be able to find more places that could be good breeding grounds for microbes, even if there’s no oxygen present.

Is anybody out there?

It’s a question astronomers wonder as they probe distant corners of the universe, tirelessly searching for signs of life outside of Earth.

A new study from scientists at the University of Washington argues that telescopes could perform a new kind of “sniff test” for life, looking for gases like methane and carbon dioxide that might bring new clues about where life could exist.

The idea posited in the study, published in the journal Science Advances Wednesday, is that telescopes could track down “atmospheric chemical disequilibrium,” a cocktail of chemicals that wouldn’t normally be compatible with one another over long periods of time, but might be able to co-exist if they were also in the presence of life.

Telescopes like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (set to launch in 2019) have a capability called “spectroscopy” which measures both radio waves and light. That’s helpful because hot gases emit distinct wavelengths of light, so by peering through a telescope, scientists can pinpoint the chemical “smell” of different chemicals in space, and know precisely which elements are present on other worlds.

The scientists say it’s not enough to look for oxygen, which would be a tell-tale sign that life existed on another planet. After all, other beings or organisms might not even need oxygen. If they exist, they probably aren’t just like us.

“We need to look for fairly abundant methane and carbon dioxide on a world that has liquid water at its surface, and Read More Here