A new study by a team led by Clara Sousa-Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that extraterrestrial life can “smell.” Scientists have determined that hydrogen phosphate, a flammable toxic gas, may be a sign of oxygen-averse extraterrestrial life on exoplanets, which can be found through space telescopes.
When scientists study the atmospheres of exoplanets, they try to figure out their composition and whether they exhibit biological features, namely life-related gases, including oxygen and methane.
The MIT team has proposed an unlikely bio-signature candidate, phosphated hydrogen. On Earth, most forms of life have nothing to do with these substances, which are mainly found in biogas, penguin dung mounds, or the guts of crickets.
Interestingly, it is difficult to produce pyredine because it takes a lot of effort to bring molecules together. On Earth, it is the product of anaerobic microorganisms that avoid oxygen and like to live in extreme conditions. In space, however, it is a trace of gas found in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn – it is produced by huge amounts of energy deep in the atmosphere.
In fact, the team looked at 16,000 bio-signature candidate chemicals (and the detailed properties of the pyreth) and found that the odor molecules were produced only by bacteria and microbes found on Earth-like planets.
Because phosphated hydrogen plays a similar role to oxygen in anaerobic organisms, the team realized that phosphated hydrogen concentrations in the atmosphere of exoplanets are the same as methane on Earth, so it could detect phosphated hydrogen 16 light-years away with telescopes such as the planned James Webb Space Telescope.
“On Earth, oxygen is indeed an impressive sign of life, ” says Sousa-Silva. But besides life, everything produces oxygen. It’s important to consider strange molecules that may not be produced often, but if you do find them on another planet, there’s only one explanation. “
A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Astrobiology.