The search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is extremely difficult and time-consuming work. The telescopes that can potentially take the measurements required are few and more will come only slowly. And for the current and next generation of observatories, staring at a single exoplanet long enough to get a measurement of the compounds in its atmosphere will be a time-consuming and expensive process — and thus a relatively infrequent one.
As a way to potentially improve the chances of finding habitable conditions on those exoplanets that are observed, a new approach has been proposed by a group of NASA scientists.
The novel technique takes advantage of the frequent stellar storms emanating from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms throw huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space – traveling near the speed of light — and the high energy particles then interact with exoplanet atmospheres and produce chemical biosignatures that can be detected.
The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports.
“We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere,” said Airapetian, who is a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at American University in Washington, D.C. “These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”
So this technique, called a search for “Beacons of Life,” would not detect signs of life per se, but would detect secondary or tertiary signals that would, in effect, tell observers to “look here.”
The scientific logic is as follows:
When high-energy particles from a stellar storm reach an exoplanet, they break the nitrogen, oxygen and water molecules that may be in the atmosphere into their individual components.
Water molecules become hydroxyl — one atom each of oxygen and hydrogen, bound together. This sparks a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately produce what the scientists call the atmospheric beacons of hydroxyl, more molecular oxygen, and nitric oxide.
For researchers, these chemical reactions are very useful guides. When starlight strikes the atmosphere, spring-like bonds within the beacon molecules absorb the energy and vibrate, sending that energy back into space as heat, or infrared radiation. Scientists know which gases emit radiation at particular wavelengths of light. So by looking at all the radiation coming from the that planet’s atmosphere, it’s possible to get a sense of what chemicals are present and roughly in what amounts..
Forming a detectable amount of these beacons requires a large quantity of molecular oxygen and nitrogen. As a result, if detected these compounds would suggest the planet has an atmosphere filled with biologically friendly chemistry as well as Earth-like atmospheric pressure. The odds of the planet being a habitable world remain small, but those odds do grow.
“These conditions are not life, but are fundamental prerequisites for life and are comparable to our Earth’s atmosphere,” Airapetian wrote in an email.
Stellar storms and related coronal mass ejections are thought to burst into space when magnetic reconnections in various regions of the star. For stars like our sun, the storms become less frequent within a relatively short period, astronomically speaking. Smaller and less luminous red dwarf stars, which are the most common in the universe, continue to send out intense stellar flares for a much longer time.
The effect of stellar weather on planets orbiting young stars, including our own four billion years ago, has been a focus of Airapetian’s work for some time.
For instance, Airapetian and Goddard colleague William Danchi published a paper in the journal Nature last year proposing that solar flares warmed the early Earth to make it habitable. They concluded that the high-energy particles also provided the vast amounts of energy needed to combine evenly scattered simple molecules into the kind of complex molecules that could keep the planet warm and form some of the chemical building blocks of life.
In other words, they argue, the solar flares were an essential part of the process that led to us.
What Airapetian is proposing now is to look at the chemical results of stellar flares hitting exoplanet atmospheres to see if they might be an essential part of a life-producing process as well, or of a process that creates a potentially habitable planet.
Airapetian said that he is again working with Danchi, a Goddard astrophysicist, and the team from heliophysics to propose a NASA mission that would use some of their solar and stellar flare findings. The mission being conceived, the Exo Life Beacon Space Telescope (ELBST), would measure infrared emissions of an exoplanet atmosphere using direct imaging observations, along with technology to block the infrared emissions of the host star.
For this latest paper, Airapetian and colleagues used a computer simulation to study the interaction between the atmosphere and high-energy space weather around a cool, active star. They found that ozone drops to a minimum and that the decline reflects the production of atmospheric beacons.
They then used a model to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form and how much ozone would be destroyed in an Earth-like atmosphere around an active star. Earth scientists have used this model for decades to study how ozone — which forms naturally when sunlight strikes oxygenin t he upper atmosphere — responds to solar storms. But the ozone reactions found a new application in this study; Earth is, after all, the best case study in the search for habitable planets and life.
Will this new approach to searching for habitable planets out?
“This is an exciting new proposed way to look for life,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a Goddard astrobiologist not connected with the study. “But as with all signs of life, the exoplanet community needs to think hard about context. What are the ways non-biological processes could mimic this signature?”
Today, Earth enjoys a layer of protection from the high-energy particles of solar storms due to its strong magnetic field. However, some particularly strong solar events can still interact with the magnetosphere and potentially wreak havoc on certain technology on Earth.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classifies solar storms on a scale of one to five (one being the weakest; five being the most severe). For instance, a storm forecast to be a G3 event means it could have the strength to cause fluctuations in some power grids, intermittent radio blackouts in higher latitudes and possible GPS issues.
This is what can happen to a planet with a strong magnetic field and a sun that is no longer prone to sending out frequent solar flares. Imagine what stellar storms can do when the star is younger and more prone to powerful flaring, and the planet less protected.
Exoplanet scientists often talk of the possibility that a particular planet was “sterilized” by the high-energy storms, and so could never be habitable. But this new research suggests that some stellar storms could have just the opposite effect — making the planet more habitable.
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.