What if another civilization had telescopes and spacecraft better than ours? Would Earth be detectable from another planet a few light-years away? Likewise, what will it take for us to detect life on an Earth-like planet within a similar distance? It’s interesting to consider those questions, and now, there is data to help answer them. In December 1990, when the Galileo spacecraft flew by Earth in its circuitous journey to Jupiter, scientists pointed some of the instruments at Earth just to see how the old home planet looked from space. Since we knew life could definitely be found on Earth, this exercise helped create some criteria that if found elsewhere, would point to the existence of life there as well. But what if Earth’s climate was different from what it is now? Would that signature still be detectable? And could potential biomarkers from extra solar planets holding climates much colder or warmer than ours be obvious? A group of researchers in France input some various criteria garnered from different epochs in Earth’s history to test out this hypothesis. What did they find?
One of the most telling of the criteria from the Galileo flyby revealing life on Earth was what is called the vegetation red edge –a sharp increase in the reflectance of light at a wavelength of around 700 nanometers. This is the result of chlorophyll absorbing visible light but reflecting near infrared strongly. The Galileo probe found strong for this evidence on Earth in 1990.
Luc Arnold and his team at the Saint-Michel-l’Observatoire in France wanted to determine some different parameters where plant life similar to Earth’s would still be detectable via the vegetative red edge on an Earth-like planet orbiting a star several light years away.
At that distance the planet would be a non-resolvable (in visible light) point-like dot, so the first question to consider is whether the red edge would be visible at different angles. The planet is likely to be rotating, and for example, on Earth, the continents that have the most vegetation are mainly in the northern hemisphere. If that hemisphere wasn’t leading the view, would a bio-signature still be detectable? They also wanted to allow for the different seasons, where a hemisphere in winter would be less likely to have vegetative biomarkers than one in summer, and potential heavy cloud cover.
They also input different climate criteria from the last Quaternary climate extremes, using climate simulations have been made by general circulation models. They used data from the present time and compared that to an ice age, The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) which occurred about 21,000 years ago. Temperatures globally were on the order of 4 degrees C colder than today, and ice sheets covered most of the northern hemisphere. Then, they used a warmer time, during the Holocene epoch 6,000 years ago, when the Earth’s northern hemisphere was about 0.5 degrees C warmer than today. The sea level was rising and the Sahara Desert contained more vegetation.
Surprisingly, the researchers found even during winter in an ice age, the vegetation red signal would not be significantly reduced, compared to today’s climate and even the warmer climate.
So if another Earth is out there, the vegetaion red edge should allow us to find that Earth-like planet. But we need better telescopes and spacecraft to find it.
The best hope on the horizon is the Terrestrial Planet Finder. ESA has a similar instrument in the works called Darwin.
The teams behind these instruments say they could spot Earth-like planets orbiting stars at distances of up to 30 light years with an exposure measured in a couple of hours.
Arnold’s team says that spotting the signs of life on such a planet would be much harder. The vegetation red edge might only be seen with an exposure of 18 weeks with a telescope like the Terrestrial Planet Finder’s. An 18 week exposure of a planet orbiting another star would be an almost impossible task.
So when might we eventually see vegetation on another planet? The Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) looks unlikely to be launched before 2025 and even then might not have the power to do the job.
More ambitious telescopes later in the century, such as a formation of 150 3-meter mirrors would collect enough photons in 30 minutes to freeze the rotation of the planet and produce an image with at least 300 pixels of resolution, and up to thousands depending on array geometry. “At this level of spatial resolution, it will be possible to identify clouds, oceans and continents, either barren or perhaps (hopefully) conquered by vegetation,” the researchers write.