We are very close to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe, Dr. Dimitris Stamatellos, Reader in Astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire, UK, has told CNA, noting that this is the perfect time for Cyprus to become a full member of the European Space Agency and be at the forefront of space exploration.
In statements to CNA on the occasion of the first observations of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope Stamatellos said that in the last three decades the question of whether we are alone in the universe has stopped being purely philosophical and that since the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995, more than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered.
He said that Cyprus, being among the most educated countries in Europe, should become a full member of the European Space Agency since many of the efforts to discover life in the universe are being led by ESA.
Stamatellos talked about the JWSP and its significance, as well as future missions of space telescopes that will collect data looking specifically for water, oxygen, nitrogen and methane, chemicals associated with life.
The James Webb Space Telescope and its significance
Referring to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), he said that about six months after its launch, it has delivered its first and long-awaited observations, adding that along with impressive images of galaxies billion of light years away and spectacular nebulae, there is the rather “dull” spectrum of WASP-96, a star that hosts an exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system.
The spectrum, he added, of a star effectively shows how strong the radiation from the star is at different colours and that gives us valuable information about the composition of the star. In the case of WASP-96 the stellar light that reaches the mirror of JWST has passed through the atmosphere of its planet.
“Some of the star’s colours have been absorbed by the gases in the planet’s atmosphere, revealing its composition. The important discovery from this observation is the presence of water vapour in the atmosphere, an ingredient that is necessary for the development of life.”
This specific planet, Stamatellos said, is a gas giant, like Jupiter, it is too close to its host star, and therefore too hot for life to develop.
He explained that for a planet to be able to support life it will at least require having liquid water on its surface, so it cannot be too close to its star, as due to the high temperature water will evaporate, like e.g. on Venus, or too far away from its star, as the planet will be too cold and the water will freeze, as it happens on Mars.
“This narrow region around a star where liquid water can exist, and life can be sustained on a planet is the habitable zone of the star. JWST will soon be looking at Earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zone of red dwarfs, mini-stars 5 to 10 times smaller than the Sun.”
He said that as these stars are cooler than the Sun, their habitable zones are closer to them, and their planets are much easier to observe.
“We will therefore be able to determine the composition of the atmospheres of these planets, and, for the very first time in the history of humankind, to determine whether these planets outside our solar system can sustain life” he pointed out.
Space telescopes looking for exoplanets and extra-terrestrial life
In the last three decades, Stamatellos told CNA, the question of whether we are alone in the universe has stopped being purely philosophical.
Stamatellos pointed out that since the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995, more than 5,000 have been discovered.
The JWST observations mark the transition from the planet discovery era to the planet characterization era meaning that finally, we can find out what these planets are made of, he said.
But the JWST is not the only one. Stamatellos said that it is the first in a list of space telescopes looking for new worlds.
NASA’s TESS and European Space Agency’s (ESA) CHEOPS are already operational discovering new planets. The next one in line is Twinkle (2024), the world’s first independent space mission, in which UCLAN is a founding member. Twinkle is a space telescope that will be devoted to studying the chemical composition of exoplanets using stellar light passing through their atmosphere.
More missions are coming up later in the decade: ESA’s PLATO (2026), which will discover Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars, NASA’s Roman telescope (2026) will discover planets farther away from their host star, and finally ESA’s Ariel mission (2028) will be a dedicated mission that will study the composition of planets in the habitable zone of their stars.
We are very close to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe
In his interview with CNA, Stamatellos said that all these will lead to a space mission, still under planning, to directly observe planets in the habitable zones of their stars, capturing their full spectrum, looking specifically for water, oxygen, nitrogen and methane, chemicals associated with life.
“We are indeed very close, maybe within 10 years, to answering the question of whether we are alone in the Universe” he underlined.
He told CNA that this is a significant achievement for humankind that shows that our possibilities are limitless if different nations come together and collaborate, which is extremely hopeful in the current uncertain geopolitical environment.
Cyprus must become full member of ESA and be at the forefront of space exploration
Noting that many of these efforts to discover life in the universe are being led by the European Space Agency, in which Cyprus is a Cooperating State since 2016, he said that this framework of collaboration provides some basic opportunities for Cypriots to be involved with ESA’s various programmes, but it would be extremely beneficial if Cyprus were to join ESA as a full member.
Cyprus, he added, is among the most educated countries in Europe with more than 40% of the adult population holding a university degree and has a lot to offer in terms of human talent, innovation, vision, and enthusiasm. He added that it has even more to gain as knowledge transfer and technical innovation can support the development of a high-knowledge economy.
“This is the perfect time for Cyprus to make the necessary steps to become a full member of the European Space Agency and be at the forefront of space exploration and scientific discovery” he concluded.
Source: Cyprus News Agency