IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis


16th September, 2023 Science and Technology

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  • NASA's James Webb Space Telescope may have stumbled upon tentative evidence suggesting signs of life on a distant exoplanet, K2-18b.
  • The telescope may have detected the presence of a molecule known as dimethyl sulphide (DMS), a substance only produced by life.


  • James Webb Telescope Discovery: The James Webb Space Telescope, operated by NASA, may have detected signs of life on the exoplanet K2-18b by detecting the presence of dimethyl sulphide (DMS), a molecule that is typically produced by living organisms on Earth.
  • Tentative Discovery: Scientists are cautious about this discovery and consider it tentative. More data is required to confirm the existence of DMS on the planet. The additional data is expected to be available within a year.
  • Other Gases Detected: In addition to DMS, methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) have been identified in K2-18b's atmosphere. This raises the possibility of the existence of a water ocean on the distant exoplanet.
  • Historical Context: This marks the first time astronomers have detected the potential presence of DMS on a planet orbiting a distant star. There is, however, a note of caution, given previous claims in 2020 regarding the presence of phosphine as a potential sign of life in the clouds of Venus, which were later refuted.
  • James Webb Space Telescope Capabilities: The James Webb Space Telescope can analyze the light passing through the atmosphere of distant planets, revealing the chemical signatures of its molecules, which is how the presence of DMS and other gases was detected.
  • K2-18b Characteristics: K2-18b is located over 1.1 million billion kilometers away from Earth and has a hydrogen-rich atmosphere. Its potential to support life depends on factors such as temperature, carbon presence, and the potential for liquid water. Observations from the James Webb Space Telescope suggest that it meets these criteria, but the presence of DMS does not guarantee the existence of life.

About Exoplanets

  • Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are celestial bodies that orbit stars outside of our solar system.
  • They have become a focal point in astronomy and astrobiology due to their potential to provide insights into the diversity of planetary systems and the possibility of finding habitable worlds or signs of extraterrestrial life.

 Discovery of Exoplanets

  • The first confirmed exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b, was discovered in 1995 by Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz.
  • Various methods are used to detect exoplanets, including the transit method, radial velocity method, direct imaging, and gravitational microlensing.

Classification of Exoplanets

  • Exoplanets are classified based on their characteristics:
    • Hot Jupiters: Large gas giants located close to their host stars.
    • Super-Earths: Exoplanets that are more massive than Earth but less massive than Neptune.
    • Terrestrial Exoplanets: Rocky planets similar in composition to Earth.
    • Exomoons: Moons orbiting exoplanets.
    • Habitable Zone: The region around a star where conditions may be suitable for liquid water and life.

Habitable Exoplanets

  • The search for habitable exoplanets is a key focus of exoplanet research.
  • The habitable zone, or "Goldilocks zone," is the region around a star where the temperature is just right for liquid water to exist on a planet's surface.
  • Kepler-186f and Kepler-442b are examples of potentially habitable exoplanets.

Atmospheric Composition

  • Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets can provide crucial information about their potential habitability.
  • Spectroscopy is used to analyze the chemical composition of exoplanet atmospheres.

Exoplanets and Alien Life

  • The search for extraterrestrial life often focuses on exoplanets in the habitable zone.
  • The discovery of biosignatures, such as oxygen or methane, in exoplanet atmospheres could be indicative of life.

Prominent Exoplanet Missions and Telescopes

  • NASA's Kepler Space Telescope revolutionized exoplanet science by discovering thousands of exoplanets using the transit method.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is expected to provide detailed insights into the atmospheres of exoplanets.

Future of Exoplanet Research

  • Ongoing and future missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), will continue to advance our understanding of exoplanets.
  • The search for signs of life on exoplanets remains a central goal of astrobiology. 


While the detection of DMS on exoplanet K2-18b is an exciting development, it is important to exercise caution and await further data to confirm the presence of this molecule and, potentially, signs of life on this distant world.  The study of exoplanets has opened up a new frontier in astronomy, offering the potential to discover worlds beyond our solar system and explore the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Advances in technology and space missions continue to expand our knowledge of these distant celestial bodies and their potential significance in the search for extraterrestrial life.


Q. Discuss the significance of the discovery and study of exoplanets in the context of space exploration and astrobiology. (250 Words)