Is there life on other worlds? HD 209458 b might hold the answer.

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HD 209458 b

Is there life on other worlds? That is a big question and if we ever do know the answer, it could be years or maybe even many years before we do. So for now, we can ask simpler questions. Such as, could any of the other planets that we have discovered so far have the potential to actually support life? Do these planets have the stuff life needs? What would life on other worlds need?

The most common form of sodium is table salt.

The Hubble Space Telescope opened up new realms of discovery when it began detecting the contents of atmospheres on extrasolar planets — detecting many of the necessities for life.

This illustration shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in its high orbit 600 kilometres above Earth.
This illustration shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in its high orbit 600 kilometres above Earth.

Unfortunately, in the search for habitable worlds, the planets whose atmospheres have been investigated so far could not host any kind of life as we know it. Most are giant hot planets of gas that are so close to their stars that they are heated to unbearable temperatures, sometimes reaching thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. So the search for habitable planets continues on.

if we ever do know the answer, it could be years or maybe even many years before we do

Hubble recently opened up new realms of discovery when it detected sodium in the atmosphere of exoplanet HD 209458 b. Sodium is an essential mineral for the human body. The most common form of sodium is table salt. Hubble’s achievement showed not only that we can learn whether a planet light-years away has an atmosphere but also that the planet has salt, maybe even table salt.

salt
Table Salt

Hubble’s observation of water, carbon, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane in those atmospheres proves that we can hunt down some of the ingredients and byproducts of life forms when we do find potentially habitable planets. Additionally, Hubble’s detection of life’s ingredients on multiple exoplanets hints that these constituents might be common.

The James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope

 

Until we pick up some sort of signal that could only come from an intelligent civilization elsewhere in the cosmos, we might never know for sure whether there is life out there. But perhaps one day, future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope will employ today’s atmosphere-probing techniques to pick up some chemical beacon on a far-off world that could only be produced by living organisms, providing the first compelling evidence that we are not alone.

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