Scientists suggest NASA’s James Webb Telescope might be able to detect any artificial lights on Proxima b. JWST launches this October.
In late 2020, astronomers from the Breakthrough Listen project, including Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, detected a tantalizing radio signal coming from the nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri. They used the Parkes telescope in Australia to detect the signal.
Proxima Centauri is an M-class red dwarf star with a mere 12% the mass of our Sun. This infrared star hosts an Earth-size planet, Proxima b, which is our nearest exoplanet at about 4.2 light-years away. The exoplanet orbits in the habitable zone where liquid water could allow the chemistry of life on the planet’s surface.
Proxima b is 20 times closer to its host star than Earth is from the Sun. Observations suggest the exoplanet is tidally locked with permanent dayside and nightside.
The dayside would probably be inhospitable due to the constant flow of intense radiation from the parent star. However, the nightside might harbor life.
Thus, scientists think that any potential technological civilization on Proxima b might choose to transfer heat and electricity from the warm, illuminated day side to the cold, night side.
Professor Loeb suggests a civilization may deploy powerful mirrors or require very bright LED-style lights to illuminate their cities.
So now, scientists suggest NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope may be able to detect artificial light on Proxima b.
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The Breakthrough Listen project team suggests that scientists can configure the new telescope to spot evidence of LED light on the planet Proxima b.
Since the JWST is bigger and more sensitive than Hubble, it would allow us to peer farther into space. It would also extend the search for artificial lights from the Kuiper belt to exoplanets like Proxima b, says Loeb.
The team investigated whether astronomers can detect artificial lights on the dark side of Proxima b by computing light curves from the planet and its host star.
Scientists consider two different scenarios which include artificial illumination with the same spectrum as commonly used LEDs on Earth, and a narrower spectrum which leads to the same proportion of light as the total artificial illumination on Earth.
If the artificial nightside illumination of Proxima b reaches 5% of the natural dayside illumination JWST could detect the artificial light with 85% certainty. And if artificial illumination were to reach 9% James Webb’s detection confidence rises to 95%.
But that’s only if the Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument on JWST works at an optimal level. If not, then the team suggests future observatories like LUVOIR might be able to detect this artificial illumination.
LUVOIR (Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor) is a concept design for a major new multi-wavelength space observatory being considered by NASA.
The search for city lights on habitable planets may sound speculative. But Loeb thinks it is worth pursuing as a potential technosignature with planned instruments.
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NASA is planning to launch James Webb Space Telescope in October 2021. It will be the largest, most powerful telescope ever, able to look back 200 million years after the Big Bang.
NASA hopes the telescope’s lifespan will be five to ten years. You can expect the first observations from the telescope to take place in 2022.
Professor Loeb is also involved in the Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to send high-speed laser-guided light sails to Proxima Centauri in just 20 years.
The astronomer also wrote a paper claiming the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua was ‘humanity’s first contact with an artifact of extraterrestrial intelligence.’
However, he has now turned his attention to Proxima b. For many alien hunters, this world is a prime candidate in the hunt for signs of intelligent alien life outside the Solar System.