Magazine article The Futurist

Chemical Fingerprints of Alien Life: Distant Planets' Atmospheres May Give Us a Glimpse at Life Contained Within

Magazine article The Futurist

Chemical Fingerprints of Alien Life: Distant Planets' Atmospheres May Give Us a Glimpse at Life Contained Within

Article excerpt

Astronomers have long searched for conclusive evidence of life beyond Earth's atmosphere. Research presented at the 2013 European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) may lead us one step closer to answering the question, "Are we alone in the universe?"

According to Lee Grenfell, a professor at the German Aerospace Center's Institute of Planetary Research, signs of life on Earth are found not only on its surface, but also in its atmosphere. For example, microbes produce nitrous oxide and methane, and oxygen from plants contributes largely to our ozone layer. These biomarkers can tell us a lot about the kinds and quantities of life on a planet's surface, the researchers explain. Theoretically, if we can identify atmospheric biomarkers on a distance planet, we should be able to determine that the planet supports life.

Biomarkers affect light passing through a planet's atmosphere, which means that we don't need a physical sample of a planet's air to learn about an atmosphere's chemical makeup. All we need is a really powerful telescope.

Because our existing telescopes are just too weak, we haven't had the opportunity to detect any of these "chemical fingerprints" that would signal the presence of life, explains Grenfell, who presented the research at this year's EPSC. …

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