From UC Santa Cruz : “Study warns of ‘oxygen false positives’ in search for signs of life on other planets”

From UC Santa Cruz

April 13, 2021
Tim Stephens

Oxygen in the atmosphere may not be an entirely reliable ‘biosignature,’ but there are ways to distinguish false positives from signs of life, scientists say.

By varying the initial inventory of volatile elements in a model of the geochemical evolution of rocky planets, researchers obtained a wide range of outcomes, including several scenarios in which a lifeless rocky planet around a sun-like star could evolve to have oxygen in its atmosphere. Credit: J. Krissansen-Totton.

In the search for life on other planets, the presence of oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere is one potential sign of biological activity that might be detected by future telescopes. A new study, however, describes several scenarios in which a lifeless rocky planet around a sun-like star could evolve to have oxygen in its atmosphere.

The new findings, published April 13 in AGU Advances, highlight the need for next-generation telescopes that are capable of characterizing planetary environments and searching for multiple lines of evidence for life in addition to detecting oxygen.

“This is useful because it shows there are ways to get oxygen in the atmosphere without life, but there are other observations you can make to help distinguish these false positives from the real deal,” said first author Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a Sagan Fellow in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “For each scenario, we try to say what your telescope would need to be able to do to distinguish this from biological oxygen.”

In the coming decades, perhaps by the late 2030s, astronomers hope to have a telescope capable of taking images and spectra of potentially Earth-like planets around sun-like stars. Coauthor Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and director of UCSC’s Other Worlds Laboratory, said the idea would be to target planets similar enough to Earth that life might have emerged on them and characterize their atmospheres.

“There has a been a lot of discussion about whether detection of oxygen is ‘enough’ of a sign of life,” he said. “This work really argues for needing to know the context of your detection. What other molecules are found in addition to oxygen, or not found, and what does that tell you about the planet’s evolution?”

This means astronomers will want a telescope that is sensitive to a broad range of wavelengths in order to detect different types of molecules in a planet’s atmosphere.

Rocky planet evolution

The researchers based their findings on a detailed, end-to-end computational model of the evolution of rocky planets, starting from their molten origins and extending through billions of years of cooling and geochemical cycling. By varying the initial inventory of volatile elements in their model planets, the researchers obtained a surprisingly wide range of outcomes.

Oxygen can start to build up in a planet’s atmosphere when high-energy ultraviolet light splits water molecules in the upper atmosphere into hydrogen and oxygen. The lightweight hydrogen preferentially escapes into space, leaving the oxygen behind. Other processes can remove oxygen from the atmosphere. Carbon monoxide and hydrogen released by outgassing from molten rock, for example, will react with oxygen, and weathering of rock also mops up oxygen. These are just a few of the processes the researchers incorporated into their model of the geochemical evolution of a rocky planet.

“If you run the model for Earth, with what we think was the initial inventory of volatiles, you reliably get the same outcome every time—without life you don’t get oxygen in the atmosphere,” Krissansen-Totton said. “But we also found multiple scenarios where you can get oxygen without life.”

For example, a planet that is otherwise like Earth but starts off with more water will end up with very deep oceans, putting immense pressure on the crust. This effectively shuts down geological activity, including all of the processes such as melting or weathering of rocks that would remove oxygen from the atmosphere.

In the opposite case, where the planet starts off with a relatively small amount of water, the magma surface of the initially molten planet can freeze quickly while the water remains in the atmosphere. This “steam atmosphere” puts enough water in the upper atmosphere to allow accumulation of oxygen as the water breaks up and hydrogen escapes.

“The typical sequence is that the magma surface solidifies simultaneously with water condensing out into oceans on the surface,” Krissansen-Totton said. “On Earth, once water condensed on the surface, escape rates were low. But if you retain a steam atmosphere after the molten surface has solidified, there’s a window of about a million years when oxygen can build up because there are high water concentrations in the upper atmosphere and no molten surface to consume the oxygen produced by hydrogen escape.”

A third scenario that can lead to oxygen in the atmosphere involves a planet that is otherwise like Earth but starts off with a higher ratio of carbon dioxide to water. This leads to a runaway greenhouse effect, making it too hot for water to ever condense out of the atmosphere onto the surface of the planet.

“In this Venus-like scenario, all the volatiles start off in the atmosphere and few are left behind in the mantle to be outgassed and mop up oxygen,” Krissansen-Totton said.

He noted that previous studies have focused on atmospheric processes, whereas the model used in this study explores the geochemical and thermal evolution of the planet’s mantle and crust, as well as the interactions between the crust and atmosphere.

“It’s not computationally intensive, but there are a lot of moving parts and interconnected processes,” he said.

In addition to Krissansen-Totton and Fortney, the coauthors include Francis Nimmo, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and Nicholas Wogan at the University of Washington (US), Seattle. This research was supported by NASA.

See the full article here .


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UC Santa Cruz (US) Lick Observatory | Since 1888, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft).

The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

UCO Lick Observatory‘s 36-inch Great Refractor telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building.

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow

The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

UC Santa Cruz (US) alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego (US), discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument, developed at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA) and brought to UCSD and installed at the UC Santa Cruz (US) Lick Observatory Nickel Telescope (Photo by Laurie Hatch).

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego (US) who led the development of the new instrument while at the U Toronto Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (CA).

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

Frank Drake with his Drake Equation. Credit Frank Drake.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.