Upcoming telescopes will give us more power to search for biosignatures on all the exoplanets we’ve found. Much of the biosignature conversation is centred on biogenic chemistry, such as atmospheric gases produced by simple, single-celled creatures. But what if we want to search for technological civilizations that might be out there? Could we find them by searching for their air pollution?
If a distant civilization was giving our planet a cursory glance in its own survey of alien worlds and technosignatures, they couldn’t help but notice our air pollution.
Can you picture Jupiter without any observable clouds or haze? It isn’t easy since Jupiter’s latitudinal cloud bands and its Great Red Spot are iconic visual features in our Solar System. Those features are caused by upswelling and descending gas, mostly ammonia. After Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s cloud forms are probably the most recognizable feature in the Solar System.
Now astronomers with the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) have found a planet similar in mass to Jupiter, but with a cloud-free atmosphere.
Red dwarf stars are the most common kind of star in our neighbourhood, and probably in the Milky Way. Because of that, many of the Earth-like and potentially life-supporting exoplanets we’ve detected are in orbit around red dwarfs. The problem is that red dwarfs can exhibit intense flaring behaviour, much more energetic than our relatively placid Sun.
So what does that mean for the potential of those exoplanets to actually support life?
The ultra-powerful James Webb Space Telescope will launch soon. Once it’s deployed, and in position at the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 2, it’ll begin work. One of its jobs is to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets and look for biosignatures. It should be simple, right? Just scan the atmosphere until you find oxygen, then close your laptop and head to the pub: Fanfare, confetti, Nobel prize.
Of course, Universe Today readers know it’s more complicated than that. Much more complicated.
In fact, the presence of oxygen is not necessarily reliable. It’s methane that can send a stronger signal indicating the presence of life.
Mars is an arid place, and aside from a tiny amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, all water exists as ice. But it wasn’t always this arid. Evidence of the planet’s past wet chapter dots the surface. Paleolakes like Jezero Crater, soon to be explored by NASA’s Perseverance Rover, provide stark evidence of Mars’ ancient past. But what happened to all that water?
It disappeared into space, of course. But when? And how quickly?
200 light years away, “super earth” exoplanet K2-141b orbits a star so closely that its “year” is only 7 hours long. Not its day…its YEAR! K2-141b orbits a mere million kilometers from the fiery surface of its star. Earth is 150 million km from our Sun. Even Mercury, the planet closest to our Sun, is never less than 47 million km. Standing on the surface of K2-141b you’d look up at an orange star that filled fifty degrees of the sky appearing a hundred times wider than our Sun appears in Earth’s sky. It would be a giant blazing orb so bright that its light shines two thirds of the way around the entire planet unlike Earth’s two day/night halves. Of course, the surface you’re standing on wouldn’t be much of a surface at all – it would be an ocean of liquid hot magma.
In September, a team of scientists reported finding phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus. Phosphine can be a biomarker and is here on Earth. But it’s also present on Jupiter, where it’s produced abiotically. The discovery led to conjecture about what kind of life might survive in Venus’ atmosphere, continually producing the easily-degraded phosphine.
The authors of that study were circumspect about their own results, saying that they hope someone can determine a source for the phosphine, other than life.
Now a new study says that the original phosphine detection is not statistically significant.
Does it feel like all eyes are on Venus these days? The discovery of the potential biomarker phosphine in the planet’s upper atmosphere last month garnered a lot of attention, as it should. There’s still some uncertainty around what the phosphine discovery means, though.
Now a team of researchers claims they’ve discovered the amino acid glycine in Venus’ atmosphere.
The discovery of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere has generated a lot of interest. It has the potential to be a biosignature, though since the discovery, some researchers have thrown cold water on that idea.
But it looks, at least, like the discovery is real, and that one of NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft detected the elusive gas back in 1978. And though it’s not necessarily a biosignature, the authors of a new study think that we need to rethink the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere.
The detection of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere was one of those quintessential moments in space science. It was an unexpected discovery, and when combined with our incomplete understanding of planetary science, and our wistful hopefulness around the discovery of life, the result was a potent mix that lit up internet headlines.
As always, some of the headlines were a bit of an over-reach. But that’s the way it goes.
At the heart of it all, there is compelling science. And the same, overarching question that keeps popping up: Are we alone?