Astronomers may be looking for something when they look for signs of extraterrestrial life in the universe,media reported. Water vapor, methane and amino acids are key clues to the life and potential habitable planet they are constantly looking for, as is oxygen. Now, scientists have come up with a new way to quickly identify this key element in the distant world’s atmosphere and plan to apply the technology to observations by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched next year.
Unlike planets in the solar system, scientists cannot study exoplanets around other stars directly. That’s because blinding light from parent stars makes it difficult for them to see any details, leading astronomers to switch to technology called transmission spectroscopy. This means studying the atmosphere, not itself, as the planet passes in front of the star. When this happens, starlight passes through the atmosphere, allowing scientists to observe which wavelengths of light pass through and which do not, allowing them to measure their temperature and chemical composition.
The powerful James Webb Space Telescope, with its unprecedented ability to capture light, is ready to scan the atmospheric light for the characteristics of key molecules and atoms. But the new technology, developed by NASA scientists and researchers at the University of California, Riverside, is expected to add a powerful new skill.
“Until we do our work, the James Webb Space Telescope can’t detect oxygen at similar levels to Earth,” said Thomas Fauchez of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This oxygen signal has been known from Earth’s atmospheric studies since the early 1980s, but has never been studied in exoplanets. “
The team’s technique uses behavioral knowledge of oxygen molecules when they collide with each other. When these collisions occur, they prevent certain types of infrared light from passing through. Using computer modeling, the scientists calculated how much light these collisions would block in the exoplanets around the M-red dwarf, the most common type in the universe.
Scientists say the atmospheric chemistry model provides a marker for rapid revelations about the presence of oxygen-rich atmospheres around exoplanets.
While the technology may help guide scientists to discover life in some form of exoplanets, the detection of oxygen in the atmosphere does not provide any guarantee. “It’s important to know whether and how much of the ‘dead’ planet produces oxygen in the atmosphere so that we can better identify when the planet is still ‘living’,” Fauchez said. “
Scientists will apply their new oxygen-identifying technology to the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in March 2021.
The study was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.