A series of statements attributed to British astronomers and astronauts have sparked speculation the JWST has found evidence for alien life. Those quoted are respected names, but since at least one of them has been misquoted, there’s probably more smoke than fire. Even if something has been found, it’s almost certainly hints of little green microbes, not a message from little green men.
According to The Spectator, three prominent figures with links to the British astronomical community marked the change of year by dropping hints of a big 2024 announcement in the quest for life beyond the Earth. Even that article acknowledged none had gone into detail. The most explicit quote was attributed to astrophysicist and science communicator Dr Becky Smethurst, who they claim said: “I think we are going to get a paper that has strong evidence for a biosignature on an exoplanet very, very soon. Let’s just say it’s on my bingo card for 2024.”
So far neither astronaut Tim Peake, nor Dame Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the other two figures mentioned, have commented. However, if Smethurst knew something, even if she couldn’t talk about it just yet, it’s unlikely she would want to issue such a clear denial. So, it looks like if anyone does think they have found evidence of alien life, they’re not waving it under the noses of prominent astronomers.
In a previous video, Smethurst did say: “Hopefully you will agree with me that now we have the JWST, I don’t think it’s a case of if we’ll detect biosignatures in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, I think it’s a case of when.” However, this video was made more than a year ago. If Smethurst knew something then that the rest of us didn’t, it would almost certainly have come out by now.
The article didn't just leave it at twisting/inventing the words of respected scientists. Instead, it linked in UFO conspiracy theorists, the type that are not only convinced aliens are visiting us, but the powers that be know and are keeping the truth from the public. Let’s say it again – the more people a conspiracy requires, the harder it is to keep secret. The idea that politicians, public servants, and astronomers are all working together to keep the biggest story of all time quiet, and have done so for years, is just silly.
Ars Technica picked up The Spectator’s story. On the one hand, they were keen to put to rest any association with alien technological civilizations. On the other hand, they gave a further boost to the idea of a major JWST finding on the way.
“The rumors have been out there for a while now, percolating through respectable corners of the astronomy and astrobiological community, that the James Webb Space Telescope has found a planet with strong evidence of life,” the article claims, before firmly attaching these to K2-18b, the planet where last year the JWST found methane, carbon dioxide and what might conceivably be dimethyl sulfide, (CH3)2S.
K2-18b transits in front of its star every 33 days, and is considered such a priority that the JWST watches when it does. Consequently, it now has a larger bank of data than it had at the time that paper came out. This means it’s likely someone processing the data knows either that the dimethyl sulfide find is wrong, or somewhat more solid than it looked based on just two transits.
One difficulty with rumors is that it’s hard to know who to ask for comment. Like most scientific fields, the astronomical community is large enough that just because someone doesn’t know anything about a soon-to-be-released discovery doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It could just be a different team involved.
Ars Technica sought comment from NASA. They quote JWST’s deputy project scientist Knicole Colón as saying: "JWST has not found definitive evidence of life on an exoplanet. It is anticipated that JWST observations may lead to the initial identification of potential biosignatures that could make habitability more or less likely for a given exoplanet. Future missions will be needed to conclusively establish the habitability of an exoplanet."
That sounds like a “nothing yet” to us, but Ars Technica, called it “not a hard no”. You can be the judge on that, but it’s very unlikely the JWST has collected enough evidence for confidence of life on K2-18b. Even if we found solid evidence of dimethyl sulfide, which is probably years away, it would be far from proof of life. On Earth, dimethyl sulfide only seems to be made by living things, but it’s a simple enough molecule that it might form in other ways under the right conditions. Other gases are considered more reliable biosignatures, but are probably beyond the JWST’s capacity to find.
If we want to find life this way, rather than picking up a clear radio signal from an advanced civilization, we’re unlikely to get anything close to certainty from the JWST. For that, as former IFLScience writer Jonathan O’Callaghan noted, we have to wait at least for the Grace Roman Observatory, which will not be launching until 2027 at the earliest. More likely both the JWST and Roman will, in this area at least, simply act as precursors for the Habitable Worlds Observatory, which is decades away and could use what other telescopes find to guide its path.
Other planets are even less likely prospects. K2-18b was targeted because it’s a large Hycean world, making its atmosphere relatively easy to study, and therefore a stepping stone to smaller worlds. JWST isn’t even looking at most of the rocky planets considered the best prospects for life because, for all its great powers, it lacks the sensitivity to find signs of life around them.
It’s hard to find something where you’re not looking. On the other hand, as The Spectator article shows, it’s very easy to report something that’s not there if you want it badly enough.