Penguin droppings could help us get to the bottom of life on other planets, say experts

The James Webb space telescope will launch this December, Nasa announced this week, packed with instruments which could detect life on other planets for the first time.

However, British scientists believe that alien lifeforms may already have been detected – and studying penguins could help to identify the kinds of organisms that exist on other worlds.

In 2020, astronomers including experts from Imperial College London and Cardiff University discovered traces of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, a chemical that is made by microbes which thrive in oxygen-free environments.

One of the places it is also found is the guano of gentoo penguins, and astronomers are now keen to study the birds to find out if a similar bacteria is living on our planetary neighbour.

Although the finding was disputed by some scientists, Imperial researchers have carried out further studies that back up the original findings, and have worked with chemists and atmospheric physicists to show the chemical could not be produced by other means on Venus.

Traces of phosphine in the clouds of Venus were discovered by astronomers in 2020

Credit: MPI

Dr Dave Clements, from the department of physics at Imperial, said: “We’ve reprocessed the data and we’re pretty convinced that the phosphine finding is real, but we don’t know what’s making it. 

“There are some anaerobic bacteria that produce phosphine. It’s found in pond slime and the guts of badgers and in piles of penguin guano. It’s very hard to measure and study because if you let oxygen in, it destroys it.

“We don’t know why anything produces phosphine at all because it requires energy. It’s not a byproduct like methane, so it may be something to do with defence or signaling against other competing bacteria. 

“We would really like to study the penguin guano to understand the biology, but it’s quite hard for astronomers to get a grant proposal to go and play with penguins, so we’re trying to navigate through interdisciplinary fields.”

The hunt for chemical signatures in space

The James Webb telescope is also looking for chemical signatures that could hint that life exists on other planets. It is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Nasa, and several British universities have instruments on board. 

It will use a process called transit spectroscopy to study the atmosphere of exoplanets as they pass in front of their parent star and pick out atoms and molecules that are present. 

Scientists will particularly be looking for the presence of chemicals like methane and oxygen which are procured by living organisms on Earth. 

Unlike the Hubble telescope, which orbited the Earth, James Webb will be placed in an area known as a Lagrange point, where the gravitational forces of the Sun and Earth balance out, effectively creating a parking spot in space. 

That will allow it to take continual images of planets as they pass in front of stars, rather than needing to wait to be back in the same position. If chemicals are detected, powerful telescopes on Earth can then be trained on specific star systems to learn more about the potential for life.

The James Webb space telescope

Credit: Chris Gunn/Nasa/AFP via Getty Images

The telescope is also looking for the “Cosmic Dawn” or the moment that the first stars burst into existence. 

The very first stars which burst to life around 170 million years after the big bang were composed of only hydrogen and helium, because other elements had not formed, and mark the first time that light appeared in the universe.

Dr Clements added: “We’re looking for the point when the lights first turn on in the universe, which is arguably, the origin of life. If we see it, it won’t look like these beautiful images of galaxies we get from Hubble, but more like a very faint blob. But the implications of these blobs can be profound. It shows what is known as the Cosmic Dawn.”

The telescope is due to be launched on the Ariane 5 rocket from the ESA space base in French Guiana on December 18. 

Britain has been leading the design and construction of the Mid InfraRed Instrument (Miri), which will peer far into the past observing very distant galaxies and newly forming stars and planets. 

Prof Gillian Wright, the Miri’s European principal investigator on the James Webb telescope, said: “Miri will measure light beyond visible light and tell us about ancient stars which have up until now remained a mystery, and the chemistry in the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.

“Decades of hard work from scientists and engineers across the world have gone into making this mission. Webb will tell us more about the Universe than ever before, answering questions about how planets, stars and galaxies form that cannot be addressed with Hubble.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *