Alien hunters are one step closer to getting proof of their existence thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope.
We revealed the first pictures from Nasa’s £8billion creation yesterday.
And while some are the most distant images of our universe ever taken, they only hint at the wonders it could reveal.
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Space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who worked on the telescope, says: “It’s going to get us closer to finding out if there is life elsewhere.”
She jokes: “There might be a signal come in to say they’re watching Coronation Street!
“I worked on the James Webb telescope on two of the instruments, so it’s a mission very close to my heart.”
The 54-year-old features in the new Horizon documentary Super Telescope: Mission To The Edge Of The Universe, on BBC Two tonight.
Dr Maggie adds: “I think people will be surprised at what goes into building a space telescope.
“It sits 1.6million km from Earth, is pointed away from Earth and the Sun, and looks into deep, dark space.
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“It’s a huge piece of engineering but delicate as well.
“We can see exoplanets and work out their size and orbit.
“Some of the starlight will pass through the thin atmosphere which surrounds the planet and we can work out which chemicals are there.
“If we find oxygen and chemicals like on Earth, we can say maybe there’s life elsewhere.” James Webb is the first telescope designed to unfold in space and is powerful enough to look back to about 200million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies appeared.
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Some of them are so far away, the light takes billions of years to reach us – so James Webb will see them as they were in the distant past.
It is also better equipped than its predecessor the Hubble Space Telescope at seeing very distant or faint objects.
Dr Maggie says: “James Webb can look very far back in time and see what happened in the early
“Light from the Sun takes about eight minutes to get to Earth.
“But if we look at when the first galaxies were formed, we’re looking billions of years into the past, so it is like a time machine.”
The ’scope’s development began in 1996 but at one point, after delays and a redesign, the US considered cancelling its completion.
Last December it was finally launched into space. Sky At Night presenter Dr Maggie reveals: “James Webb is also designed to look at Jupiter, Saturn and moons like Titan – which has a methane atmosphere – and Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which has an icy crust and liquid water underneath.”
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So how will we get proof of life on other planets? Dr Maggie says: “Civilisations have to collide before we get confirmation.
“If we look into the past, we could see evidence of a civilisation no longer in existence because it’s taken millions of years for that light – their signal – to get to us.
“I love the idea an alien civilisation came to Earth, stepped out and met the dinosaurs.”
And she continues: “The only example of life we have so far is life we find on Earth.
“We think we need liquid water and try to find it in the atmosphere of the exoplanets, but life could be very different from what we expect.
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“Life on Earth is carbon-based but on the periodic table, the next one down is silicon so maybe you could have silicon-based life forms.
“What would that mean and how would that change what sort of planet they live on?”
Expanding technology will give Earth’s inhabitants a better understanding of what is out there.
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Dr Maggie explains: “James Webb is important for the future of humankind. We might be looking to travel within – and beyond – our solar system.
“Knowing where might and might not be safe, and the mechanism of how the universe works when we want to literally reach for the stars, might open up a new area of science we haven’t anticipated.”
● Super Telescope: Mission To The Edge Of The Universe is on BBC Two tonight at 8pm.
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