JWST astrobiology

Lisa Kaltenegger (MPIA) gave the astro seminar today. Her group has been doing great things on exoplanetary atmospheres and their observability; she showed that even the temperature structure and detailed energy balance and chemistry of an Earth-like atmosphere could in principle be inferred from low-resolution spectroscopy. The future is extremely bright in this area. One shocking thing that she said is that, given planned lifetime and sensitivity, JWST will not be able to realistically and at good signal-to-noise follow up the atmospheres of more than a few rocky planets (which are small and therefore very hard to observe). If we don't have rocky-planet candidates that are JWST-appropriate (that is, orbiting stars nearby enough to the Sun), JWST won't be able to do very much. It is not clear that we will be ready! In my view, which is perhaps not a consensus view, if JWST doesn't make a big impact on exoplanet research, it was probably not worth the (very large amount of) money. Cosmology and galaxy formation are great and all, but at the JWST price-tag (and exclusion of very worthy competitors), it has to make big impacts in many areas. So let's work on projects that get that candidate list ready; Kepler—awesome as it is—doesn't do the job because it's field doesn't contain bright enough (near enough) primaries.

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