If Astronomers see Isoprene in the Atmosphere of an Alien World, There’s a Good Chance There’s Life There

It is no exaggeration to say that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded in recent decades. To date, 4,375 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,247 systems, with another 5,856 candidates awaiting confirmation. In recent years, exoplanet studies have started to transition from the process of discovery to one of characterization. This process is expected to accelerate once next-generation telescopes become operational.

As a result, astrobiologists are working to create comprehensive lists of potential “biosignatures,” which refers to chemical compounds and processes that are associated with life (oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, etc.) But according to new research by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), another potential biosignature we should be on the lookout for is a hydrocarbon called isoprene (C5H8).

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Asteroids Can Get Shaken And Stirred By Mars’ Gravity

Asteroids are sometimes called loose rubble piles, which leads to interesting effects if they happen to get close to a planet. A science team in 2010 found out that when asteroids get close to Earth, the gravity of our planet can stir up the dust grains and “refresh” its face, in a sense. Now, scientists have found that Mars can do the same thing.

Here’s the interesting part: the asteroid belt is in between Mars and Jupiter, which means that potentially more asteroids could be changed from the influence of Mars than what happens near Earth.

“Mars is right next to the asteroid belt, and in a way it gets more opportunity than the Earth does to refresh asteroids,” stated Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who participated in both sets of research.

Artist’s impression of the asteroid (234) Barbara. Thanks to a unique method that uses ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer, astronomers have been able to measure sizes of small asteroids in the main belt for the first time. Their observations also suggest that Barbara has a complex concave shape, best modelled as two bodies that may possibly be in contact. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of the asteroid (234) Barbara. Thanks to a unique method that uses ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer, astronomers have been able to measure sizes of small asteroids in the main belt for the first time. Their observations also suggest that Barbara has a complex concave shape, best modelled as two bodies that may possibly be in contact. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

“Picture Mars and an asteroid going through an intersection, and sometimes they’ll both come through at very nearly the same time,” Binzel added. “If they just barely miss each other, that’s close enough for Mars’ gravity to tug on [the asteroid] and shake it up. It ends up being this random process as to how these things happen, and how often.”

The initial research in 2010 showed that most asteroids are redder than meteorites. On asteroids, the  surfaces get exposed to cosmic radiation and become redder as time goes on. But when as asteroid gets close to Earth, the planet’s gravity moves around the surface particles and brings fresher bits from underneath. Meteorites that break off from these asteroids would therefore not be as red.

This time around, Binzel’s team looked at other possibilities to “refresh” asteroids, such as collisions or energy from the sun, but concluded that the planets are probably the big reason we see the changed surfaces. You can read more details on the research in the journal Icarus or the preprint version on Arxiv. The lead author on the article was MIT planetary scientist Francesca DeMeo.

Source: MIT