“We can now talk about possible signs of life elsewhere”

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched in December 2021, is today the most powerful and capable space observatory ever built. With him, a new era of scientific discoveries opens. The Toulouse astrophysicist Olivier Berné, who studies the formation of stars and planetary systems, bears witness to this.

Since it was put into orbit just over a year ago, the James Webb Space Telescope has kept all its promises. The most powerful observatory ever sent into space promises a huge boost in knowledge of the Universe. In orbit at the Lagrange L2 point, 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth, the James Webb telescope is equipped with instruments that capture infrared light in order to go back further in the history of the formation of stars and planets. One of the scientific objectives of the mission will also be to determine if there are life forms on exoplanets (planets in orbit around stars other than the Sun).

“We leave the solar system to look for traces of life”

“I don’t know what we’re going to discover with the James Webb telescope, but what’s certain is that it’s a game-changing tool. Now we can talk about the possibility of discovering life signatures elsewhere without going for a madman in the scientific community. It’s quite new because before we were looking for other planets, the most complex molecules possible, but we didn’t dare to go further. There, there is a paradigm shift.” , testifies Olivier Berné, astrophysicist, CNRS researcher at IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology of Toulouse). With his team, he studied the Orion Nebula, the closest star nursery to Earth, through the first observations made by the James Webb telescope.

“We looked a lot for life through the missions on Mars but, with James Webb, we change scale, we go out of the solar system to look for signatures of things that could be linked to the origins of life or that inform us on biological processes elsewhere. James Webb allows us a scientific and philosophical leap”, continues the researcher.

Technically, infrared observation allows this search for biological signatures and this is what excites many scientists. “The previous space telescope, Hubble, had not been designed for that at all. When we launched it in 1990, we didn’t even know that exoplanets existed. There it is different, we know that “there are thousands of exoplanets and James Webb was designed to go and explore those distant worlds in great detail. We already have some interesting data but I’m sure we’ll have surprises. I feel very lucky to be part of this this adventure”, slips the scientist again.

In Toulouse, we observe the Orion Nebula around the “Tatooine” theory

At IRAP, Olivier Berné’s team is making rapid progress in understanding the formation of planetary systems. The latest data, from observations of the Orion Nebula by James Webb, were received this week, their study is in progress. “We are working in particular on the formation of planets not far from massive stars. It is the Tatooine theory (reference to the planet imagined by Georges Lucas in Star Wars, Editor’s note) which proposes that the Solar System was formed in an environment where there was both the Sun and a massive star that disappeared after a few million years. Looking at the Orion Nebula, we find ourselves in this scenario: stars like the Sun are in the process of form and, next to them, there are massive stars which send very strong ultraviolet radiation to the planets in formation”, concludes Olivier Berné.