NASA Research Gives Guideline for Future Alien Life Search
Astronomers searching alien worlds for gases that might be produced by life can't rely on the detection of just one type, such as oxygen, ozone, or methane, because in some cases these gases can be produced non-biologically, according to simulations by researchers in the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory.
The researchers carefully simulated the atmospheric chemistry of alien worlds devoid of life thousands of times over a period of more than four years, varying the atmospheric compositions and star types. "When we ran these calculations, we found that in some cases, there was a significant amount of ozone that built up in the atmosphere, despite there not being any oxygen flowing into the atmosphere," said Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "This has important implications for our future plans to look for life beyond Earth."
Methane is a carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms. On Earth, much of it is produced biologically, but it can also be made inorganically; for example, volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean can release the gas after it is produced by reactions of rocks with seawater.
Ozone and oxygen were previously thought to be stronger biosignatures on their own. Ozone is three atoms of oxygen bound together. On Earth, it is produced when molecular oxygen (two oxygen atoms) and atomic oxygen (a single oxygen atom) combine, after the atomic oxygen is created by other reactions powered by sunlight or lightning.
Life is the dominant source of the molecular oxygen on our planet, as the gas is produced by photosynthesis in plants and microscopic, single-cell organisms. Because life dominates the production of oxygen, and oxygen is needed for ozone, both gases were thought to be relatively strong biosignatures.
But this study demonstrated that both molecular oxygen and ozone can be made without life when ultraviolet light breaks apart carbon dioxide (a carbon atom bound to two oxygen atoms). Their research suggests this non-biological process could create enough ozone for it to be detectable across space, so the detection of ozone by itself would not be a definitive sign of life.
"However, our research strengthens the argument that methane and oxygen together, or methane and ozone together, are still strong signatures of life," said Domagal-Goldman. "We tried really, really hard to make false-positive signals for life, and we did find some, but only for oxygen, ozone, or methane by themselves."
Domagal-Goldman and Antígona Segura from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City are lead authors of a paper about this research, along with astronomer Victoria Meadows, geologist Mark Claire, and Tyler Robison, an expert on what Earth would look like as an extrasolar planet. The paper appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Sept. 10, and is available online.