Astronomers at the University of Washington have developed a new method of gauging the atmospheric pressure of exoplanets, or worlds beyond the solar system, by looking for a certain type of molecule.
And if there is life out in space, scientists may one day use this same technique to detect its biosignature — the telltale chemical signs of its presence — in the atmosphere of an alien world.
Understanding atmospheric pressure is key to knowing if conditions at the surface of a terrestrial, or rocky, exoplanet might allow liquid water, thus giving life a chance.
The method, devised by Amit Misra, a UW astronomy doctoral student, and co-authors, involves computer simulations of the chemistry of Earth’s own atmosphere that isolate what are called “dimer molecules” — pairs of molecules that tend to form at high pressures and densities in a planet’s atmosphere. There are many types of dimer molecules but this research focused only on those of oxygen. Misra is first author of the paper was published in the February issue of the journal Astrobiology.
The researchers ran simulations testing the spectrum of light in various wavelengths. Dimer molecules absorb light in a distinctive pattern, and the rate at which they form is sensitive to the pressure, or density, in the planet’s atmosphere.
“So the idea is that if we were able to do this for another planet, we could look for this characteristic pattern of absorption from dimer molecules to identify them,” Misra said. The presence of such molecules, he said, likely means the planet has at least one-quarter to one-third the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere.
Powerful telescopes soon to come online, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, may enable astronomers to use this method on distant exoplanets. With such enhanced tools, Misra said, astronomers might detect dimer molecules in actual exoplanet atmospheres, leading to a clear understanding of the planet’s atmosphere.
This research may also play a part in the greatest astronomical quest of all — the ongoing search for life in the cosmos.
That’s because the team realized along the way that oxygen dimer molecules are often more detectable in an atmosphere than other markers of oxygen. That’s important from a biological standpoint, Misra said.
“It’s tied to photosynthesis, and we have pretty good evidence that it’s hard to get a lot of oxygen in an atmosphere unless you have algae or plants that are producing it at a regular rate.
“So if we find a good target planet, and you could detect these dimer molecules — which might be possible within the next 10 to 15 years — that would not only tell you something about pressure, but actually tell you that there’s life on that planet.”
Misra’s UW co-author is Victoria Meadows, professor of astronomy; other co-authors are Mark Claire of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and Dave Crisp of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The research was performed through the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory and funded by NASA (Grant NNH05ZDA001C), as well as a grant from Advancing Science in America, Seattle chapter.
For more information, contact Misra at 440-554-6514 or email@example.com
Peter Kelley | EurekAlert!
Astronomers release spectacular survey of the distant universe
01.07.2016 | University of Nottingham
Jupiter on a bench
01.07.2016 | Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Since the completion of the human genome an important goal has been to elucidate the function of the now known proteins: a new molecular method enables the investigation of the function for thousands of proteins in parallel. Applying this new method, an international team of researchers with leading participation of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) was able to identify hundreds of previously unknown interactions among proteins.
The human genome and those of most common crops have been decoded for many years. Soon it will be possible to sequence your personal genome for less than 1000...
3D printing revolutionized the manufacturing of complex shapes in the last few years. Using additive depositing of materials, where individual dots or lines...
R2D2, a joint project to analyze and development high-TRL processes and technologies for manufacture of flexible organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has been successfully completed.
In contrast to point light sources like LEDs made of inorganic semiconductor crystals, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are light-emitting surfaces. Their...
High resolution rotational spectroscopy reveals an unprecedented number of conformations of an odorant molecule – a new world record!
In a recent publication in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter...
Strands of cow cartilage substitute for ink in a 3D bioprinting process that may one day create cartilage patches for worn out joints, according to a team of engineers. "Our goal is to create tissue that can be used to replace large amounts of worn out tissue or design patches," said Ibrahim T. Ozbolat, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics. "Those who have osteoarthritis in their joints suffer a lot. We need a new alternative treatment for this."
Cartilage is a good tissue to target for scale-up bioprinting because it is made up of only one cell type and has no blood vessels within the tissue. It is...
30.06.2016 | Event News
28.06.2016 | Event News
09.06.2016 | Event News
01.07.2016 | Earth Sciences
01.07.2016 | Medical Engineering
01.07.2016 | Life Sciences