While the Earth absorbs a lot of energy from the Sun, a lot of it is reflected back into space. The sunlight reflected from Earth is called Earthshine. We can see it on the dark portion of the Moon during a crescent Moon. The Farmer’s Almanac said it used to be called “the new Moon in the old Moon’s arms.”
Earthshine is one instance of planetshine, and when we look at the light from distant exoplanets, we’re looking directly at their planetshine without it bouncing off another object.
If distant astronomers were looking at Earthshine the way we look at exoplanet shine, would the light tell them our planet is rippling with life?
The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever launched into space. That power has led to a string of observational successes: ancient galaxies, obscured star-forming regions, and an exoplanet atmosphere. Now the telescope has identified its first exoplanet, and it’s a rocky planet the same size as Earth.
Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere does more than provide the foundation for complex life. The oxygen in the atmosphere is so reactive that it readily combines with other chemical elements. Together, they form important ores like iron oxides and manganese oxides found in the Earth’s crust. So, when rovers spotted manganese oxides on Mars, scientists interpreted them as clues to Mars’ earlier atmosphere: it must have contained oxygen.
The on-again, off-again detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus appears to be off-again – for now. The latest study, based on data from the SOFIA telescope, reveals that the flying observatory didn’t see any signs of phosphine. According to the results, if there is any phosphine present in Venus’s atmosphere at all, it’s a maximum of about 0.8 parts per billion, much smaller than the initial estimate.
However, the team that made the initial detection of phosphine, which was announced in 2020, disagrees with the researchers’ interpretation of the SOFIA data.
Everybody’s heard of methane. It’s a major part of the atmosphere in places like Uranus and Neptune. On Earth, it’s also part of our atmosphere, where it works to warm things up. Some of it gets there from natural causes. But, a lot of it comes from industrial super-emitters and other human-caused processes. That’s not good because too much methane works, along with other greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide, or CO2) to “over warm” our atmosphere.
Astronomers have spotted barium in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet. With its 56 protons, you have to run your finger further down the periodic table than astronomers usually do to find barium. What does finding such a heavy element in an exoplanet atmosphere mean?
It means we’re still learning how strange exoplanets can be.
Finding oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere is a clue that life may be at work. On Earth, photosynthetic organisms absorb carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water and produce sugars and starches for energy. Oxygen is the byproduct of that process, so if we can detect oxygen elsewhere, it’ll generate excitement. But researchers have also put pressure on the idea that oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere indicates life. It’s only evidence of life if we can rule out other pathways that created the oxygen.
Will we discover simple life somewhere? Maybe on Enceladus or Europa in our Solar System, or further away on an exoplanet? As we get more proficient at exploring our Solar System and studying exoplanets, the prospect of finding some simple life is moving out of the creative realm of science fiction and into concrete mission planning.
As the hopeful day of discovery draws nearer, it’s a good time to ask: what might this potential life look like?
People often seem surprised when they learn that NASA doesn’t just look out to the other planets, stars, and galaxies. It’s also an agency that studies our own home planet—from space! And why not? Earth is part of the solar system, too. So, to that end, there’s a new Earth studies mission called EMIT on its way to the International Space Station. It’s designed to track dust as it moves from one place to another on our planet through through our atmosphere.
The official name of the mission is the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT, for short). It will use a high-tech imaging spectrometer to study dust around the globe over the next year.
The next step to understanding exoplanets is to understand their atmospheres better. Astronomers can determine a planet’s mass, density, and other physical characteristics fairly routinely. But characterizing their atmospheres is more complicated.
Astronomers have had some success studying exoplanet atmospheres, and spacecraft like the James Webb Space Telescope and the ESA’s ARIEL mission will help a lot. But there are thousands of confirmed exoplanets with many more to come, and the Webb has many demands on its time.
Can smaller, ground-based telescopes play a role in understanding exoplanet atmospheres?