August 21, 2002 –Scientists may be able to identify habitable conditions and evidence of life on planets outside our solar system using spectroscopic analysis, according to a paper published in the Summer 2002 (Volume 2, Number 2) issue of Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. http://www.liebertpub.com/
In a paper entitled “Remote Sensing of Planetary Properties and Biosignatures on Extrasolar Terrestrial Planets,” Des Marais et al. report the results of a study using spectroscopic techniques to discover and explore new planets capable of supporting life–a goal of NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder and the European Space Agency’s Darwin missions.
Spectroscopy is a technique for analysing the chemical composition and properties of biological compounds. Using remote sensing, researchers are able to detect spectral signatures of biological products on extrasolar planets. These “biosignatures” can provide evidence that the atmospheres and environments on these planets may be able to support life.
The authors used known spectroscopic features of Earth, Venus, and Mars to determine spectral wavelengths and features useful for estimating planetary size and mass and for detecting and quantifying oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water levels on extrasolar planets–all indicators of habitable atmospheric and environmental conditions.
The authors are David J. Des Marais, Ph.D. (Ames Research Center), Martin O. Harwit, Ph.D. (Cornell University), Kenneth W. Jucks, Ph.D. and Wesley A. Traub, Ph.D. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), James F. Kasting, Ph.D. (Pennsylvania State University), Douglas N.C. Lin, Ph.D. (University of California, Santa Cruz), Jonathan I. Lunine, Ph.D. and Neville J. Woolf, Ph.D. (University of Arizona), Jean Schneider, Ph.D. (Observatoire de Paris,), and Sara Seager, Ph.D. (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ).