Astronomers May Have Found Life Beyond Earth

As I spoke to NASA’s chief scientist about a potentially habitable planet 120 light-years from our own, I found myself thinking about my father and his telescope.

By Peter Savodnik at The Free Press: We will soon know a little more thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA blasted into space on Christmas 2021 and is now about 1 million miles from Earth, revolving around the sun.

A few months ago, the space telescope hoovered up several as-yet-unreleased images of K2-18b, an exoplanet—meaning a planet outside our solar system. K2-18b is 120 light-years from Earth and, importantly, resides in the habitable, or Goldilocks, zone around the star it orbits. Not too hot, not too cold, it may be just the right temperature for an Earth-like atmosphere that might—might—include life.

Until the 1990s, human beings didn’t know exoplanets existed. Now, we know there are 5,000-plus in our galaxy alone; in the wider universe, astronomers believe there may be as many as 40 billion in the habitable zone.

“There might be simple life all throughout the galaxy,” Jessie Christiansen, an astrophysicist at Caltech and chief scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, told me. She meant microbes, bacteria, single-celled organisms.

Alexei Filippenko, a UC Berkeley astronomer, told me in an email: “If there is life on K2-18b, it would demonstrate that life on Earth is not unique—a very important discovery.” He added: “Perhaps it would change the religious outlooks of some people, but not others. It depends on whether one subscribes to the belief that God made Earth unique in terms of life.”

More here.