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The search for life on other planets could get a boost from biosignatures

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

A few of the chemical cocktails, such as the combination of methane and carbon dioxide, might be detectable by future observatories like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2019.

"It's really giving people a path forward on what to focus on in their observations," said Nikole Lewis, a project scientist for the James Webb who is based at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

James Webb will survey a broad range of planets, and having a wide variety of biosignatures and a range of planetary templates is a crucial tool, she added. That's because the more planets they're able to find that fit these criteria, the more likely they are to discover the few that might really host living things.

"We'll have a large enough sample that hopefully there'll be a few that will stick out like sore thumbs," Lewis said.

Until James Webb and other telescopes capable of finding these atmospheric contents come online, the hunt for possible biosignatures continues, scientists said.

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"At the moment we're not yet prepared to recognize life on the full diversity of Earth-like exoplanets, and we can only imagine what life might look like on a planet that's not Earth-like," Olson said. "That's of course a huge area of research, and I don't think we've quite figured it out yet. But disequilibrium is potentially a particularly powerful path forward."

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