Purple Bacteria — Not Green Plants — Might Be the Strongest Indication of Life

Artist's impression of Earth in the early Archean with a purplish hydrosphere and coastal regions. Even in this early period, life flourished and was gaining complexity. Credit: Oleg Kuznetsov
Artist's impression of Earth in the early Archean with a purplish hydrosphere and coastal regions. Even in this early period, life flourished and was gaining complexity, and distant exoplanets might begin similarly. Credit: Oleg Kuznetsov

Astrobiologists continue to work towards determining which biosignatures might be best to look for when searching for life on other worlds. The most common idea has been to search for evidence of plants that use the green pigment chlorophyll, like we have on Earth. However, a new paper suggests that bacteria with purple pigments could flourish under a broader range of environments than their green cousins. That means current and next-generation telescopes should be looking for the emissions of purple lifeforms.

“Purple bacteria can thrive under a wide range of conditions, making it one of the primary contenders for life that could dominate a variety of worlds,” said Lígia Fonseca Coelho, a postdoctoral associate at the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) and first author of “Purple is the New Green: Biopigments and Spectra of Earth-like Purple Worlds,” published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

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Radiating Exoplanet Discovered in “Perfect Tidal Storm”

Artist’s illustration of HD 104067 b, which is the outermost exoplanet in the HD 104067 system, and responsible for potentially causing massive tidal energy on the innermost exoplanet candidate, TOI-6713.01. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Can tidal forces cause an exoplanet’s surface to radiate heat? This is what a recent study accepted to The Astronomical Journal hopes to address as a team of international researchers used data collected from ground-based instruments to confirm the existence of a second exoplanet residing within the exoplanetary system, HD 104067, along with using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission to identify an additional exoplanet candidate, as well. What’s unique about this exoplanet candidate, which orbits innermost compared to the other two, is that the tidal forces exhibited from the outer two exoplanets are potentially causing the candidates’ surface to radiate with its surface temperature reaching as high as 2,300 degrees Celsius (4,200 degrees Fahrenheit), which the researchers refer to as a “perfect tidal storm”.

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The Seven Most Intriguing Worlds to Search for Advanced Civilizations (So Far)

Sometimes, the easy calculations are the most interesting. A recent paper from Balázs Bradák of Kobe University in Japan is a case in point. In it, he takes an admittedly simplistic approach but comes up with seven known exoplanets that could hold the key to the biggest question of them all – are we alone?

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The First Atmospheric Rainbow on an Exoplanet?

Artist impression of glory on exoplanet WASP-76b. Credit: ESA

When light strikes the atmosphere all sorts of interesting things can happen. Water vapor can split sunlight into a rainbow arc of colors, corpuscular rays can stream through gaps in clouds like the light from heaven, and halos and sundogs can appear due to sunlight reflecting off ice crystals. And then there is the glory effect, which can create a colorful almost saint-like halo around objects.

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Could We Directly Observe Volcanoes on an Exoplanet?

After a few decades of simply finding exoplanets, humanity is starting to be able to do something more – peer into their atmospheres. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has already started looking at the atmospheres of some larger exoplanets around brighter stars. But in many cases, scientists are still developing models that both explain what the planet’s atmosphere is made of and match the data. A new study from researchers at UC Riverside, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, American University, and the University of Maryland looks at what one particular atmospheric process might look like on an exoplanet – volcanism.

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The Search for the Perfect Coronagraph to Find Earth 2.0

Coronagraph allowing the direct imaging of exoplanets

Studying exoplanets is made more difficult by the light from the host star. Coronagraphs are devices that block out the star light and both JWST and Nancy Grace Roman Telescope are equipped with them. Current coronagraphs are not quite capable of seeing other Earths but work is underway to push the limits of technology and even science for a new, more advanced device. A new paper explores the quantum techniques that may one day allow us to make such observations. 

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Life Might Be Difficult to Find on a Single Planet But Obvious Across Many Worlds

This artist's illustration shows the exoplanet WASP-62B. Searching for chemical biosignatures on exoplanets is a painstaking process, weighed down by assumptions and prone to false positives. Is there a better way to find exoplanets with a chance to support life? Image Credit: CfA

If we could detect a clear, unambiguous biosignature on just one of the thousands of exoplanets we know of, it would be a huge, game-changing moment for humanity. But it’s extremely difficult. We simply aren’t in a place where we can be certain that what we’re detecting means what we think or even hope it does.

But what if we looked at many potential worlds at once?

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Finding Atmospheres on Red Dwarf Planets Will Take Hundreds of Hours of Webb Time

This illustration shows what exoplanet K2-18 b could look like based on science data. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope examined the exoplanet and revealed the presence of carbon-bearing molecules. The abundance of methane and carbon dioxide, and shortage of ammonia, support the hypothesis that there may be a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in K2-18 b. But more extensive observations with the JWST are needed to understand its atmosphere with greater confidence. Image Credit: By Illustration: NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)Science: Nikku Madhusudhan (IoA)

The JWST is enormously powerful. One of the reasons it was launched is to examine exoplanet atmospheres to determine their chemistry, something only a powerful telescope can do. But even the JWST needs time to wield that power effectively, especially when it comes to one of exoplanet science’s most important targets: rocky worlds orbiting red dwarfs.

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Could Earth Life Survive on a Red Dwarf Planet?

This artist's illustration shows planets orbiting a red dwarf star. Many red dwarfs have planets in their habitable zones, but red dwarf flaring might mean those zones aren't habitable at all. New research explores the idea. Image Credit: NASA

Even though exoplanet science has advanced significantly in the last decade or two, we’re still in an unfortunate situation. Scientists can only make educated guesses about which exoplanets may be habitable. Even the closest exoplanet is four light-years away, and though four is a small integer, the distance is enormous.

That doesn’t stop scientists from trying to piece things together, though.

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Another Hycean Planet Found? TOI-270 d

Artist's impression of the surface of a hycean world. Hycean worlds are still hypothetical, and have large oceans and thick hydrogen-rich atmospheres that trap heat. They could be habitable even if they're outside the traditional habitable zone. Credit: University of Cambridge

Hycean planets may be able to host life even though they’re outside what scientists consider the regular habitable zone. Their thick atmospheres can trap enough heat to keep the oceans warm even though they’re not close to their stars.

Astronomers have found another one of these potential hycean worlds named TOI-270 d.

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