Alien Lifeforms: New Technique For Spotting Life on Other Planets

First Posted: Jun 23, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

Scientists may have figured out a way to detect biosignatures of life on other worlds. They've found that if organisms with nonphotosynthetic pigments cover enough of a planet's surface, their spectral signal could be detected by powerful future telescopes.

When it comes to detecting life on other planets, scientists have it hard. It's difficult to detect life that may potentially not rely wholly on photosynthesis. Now, though, researchers have found that it may be possible to detect these lifeforms.

"I was interested in doing biology in the lab and linking it to remotely detectable biosignatures, which are indications there is life on a planet based on observations that could be made from a space-based telescope or large ground-based telescope," said Edward Schwieterman, one of the researchers, in a news release.

There already existed methods for detecting signatures that would herald life similar to what can be found on Earth. However, researchers haven't designed a way to detect life that may not rely on photosynthesis.

Pigments that absorb light are helpful to earthly organisms in ways other than just producing energy. Some protect against the sun's radiation or have antioxidants that help the organism survive extreme environments, such as salt concentrations, high temperatures or acidity. The researchers thus relied on these pigments rather than photosynthesis to detect life.

The scientists plugged in results into Virtual Planetary Laboratory spectral models. This allowed them to simulate hypothetical planets covered to varying degrees with these organisms.

"With those models we could determine the potential detectability of those signatures," said Schwieterman. "This broader perspective might allow us to pick up on something we might have missed or offer an additional piece of evidence, in conjunction with a gaseous biosignature like oxygen, for example, that a planet is inhabited."

The findings are published in the journal Astrobiology.

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