Methylated gases could be an unambiguous indicator of alien life

By James R. Riordon | Science News |

SCIENCE NEWS - Attention alien hunters: If you want to find life on distant planets, try looking for signs of toxic chemical cleanup. 

Gases that organisms produce as they tidy up their environments could provide clear signs of life on planets orbiting other stars, researchers announced January 9 at the American Astronomical Society meeting. All we need to do to find hints of alien life is to look for those gases in the atmospheres of those exoplanets, in images coming from the James Webb Space Telescope or other observatories that could come online soon.

The fact that living creatures almost always have a hand in making methylated gases means the presence of the compounds in a planet’s atmosphere would be a strong sign of life of some kind, planetary astrobiologist Michaela Leung of the University of California, Riverside said at the meeting.

The same isn’t true of oxygen and methane. Oxygen, in particular, can accumulate when a hot star warms a planet’s oceans. “You have a steam atmosphere, and the [ultraviolet] radiation from the star splits up the water” into its constituent parts, oxygen and hydrogen, Leung says. Hydrogen is light, so much of it is lost to space on small planets. “What you have left is all of this oxygen,” which, she says, leads to “really convincing oxygen signals in this process that at no point involved life.”



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