Signs of Life

“If alien astronomers are out there searching for signs of life on Earth, they might just find it in the telltale pattern of light reflected by our plants, from redwood forests to desert cacti to grass-covered plains. That reflected fingerprint has been visible since vegetation first began carpeting our rocky terrestrial landscape about half a billion years ago. And as Earth aged and evolution marched onward, the reflected signal strengthened.

“Now, two astronomers are suggesting that plants could leave similar fingerprint-like patterns on distant exoplanets, and perhaps the first signs of life beyond our solar system could come from light reflected by forests covering an alien moon like Endor or cacti living in Tatooine’s deserts.

 
shui-mao

“We’re trying to figure out—with all the planets we’re finding—what are the signatures that could indicate habitability?” says Cornell University’s Lisa Kaltenegger, who recently described Earth’s leafy signature in a study published in the journal Astrobiology.

“We really want to identify the handful, or two or three, that give us the best chance to pick up signs of life.”

“While this isn’t the first time scientists have suggested looking for life in a far-off planet’s light, Kaltenegger’s team adds a twist: Such reflections can also offer a good estimate for an alien planet’s evolutionary advancement, based on our knowledge of how things work on Earth.

“This idea that you could find vegetation on another planet has been around. But nobody ever used Earth’s own geological history as an archive,” Kaltenegger says. “We don’t have a second planet with habitability, but we do have our Earth through time, and it would be really smart to study it.”

“Several decades ago, the Galileo spacecraft, which was headed for Jupiter, swiveled to stare at Earth’s reflected light. It spied the signs of biology at work in the presence of atmospheric gases such as ozone and methane. More recently, astronomers have teased apart Earthshine, or the bit of Earth-light that sometimes dimly illuminates the darker part of a crescent moon’s face. They found life’s fingerprints there, too.

“Now, scientists searching for life beyond Earth are debating how biology might leave molecular marks in alien atmospheres, either by producing particular compounds or by shifting the mix of gases swaddling a planet.”

Text: “Want to Find Alien Life? Look at Older, Hotter Earths”, National Geographic.
Image: L’occhio di Shui (The Eye of Shui) by Shui Mao.

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