"The hunt for life on other planets is now ramping up in a serious way."

Using explanets' biosignatures as an indicator of alien life


Tue, Feb 9th, 2016 11:00 by capnasty NEWS

Quanta brings to attention the work of astrobiologists who are trying to determine whether the discovery of oxygen on a distant exoplanet is caused by natural phenomena or by alien life. Avoiding false positives is important due to the hundreds of hours it will require the James Webb telescope to examine "the spectrum for each planetary atmosphere."

The search for biosignature gases around faraway exoplanets “is an inherently messy problem,” said Victoria Meadows, an Australian powerhouse who heads VPL. In the years since Domagal-Goldman’s discovery, Meadows has charged her team of 75 with identifying the major “oxygen false positives” that can arise on exoplanets, as well as ways to distinguish these false alarms from true oxygenic signs of biological activity. Meadows still thinks oxygen is the best biosignature gas. But, she said, “if I’m going to look for this, I want to make sure that when I see it, I know what I’m seeing.”

Meanwhile, Sara Seager, a dogged hunter of “twin Earths” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is widely credited with inventing the spectral technique for analyzing exoplanet atmospheres, is pushing research on biosignature gases in a different direction. Seager acknowledges that oxygen is promising, but she urges the astrobiology community to be less terra-centric in its view of how alien life might operate — to think beyond Earth’s geochemistry and the particular air we breathe. “My view is that we do not want to leave a single stone unturned; we need to consider everything,” she said.



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