Origin & Evolution of Life

Abiotic Ozone and Oxygen in Atmospheres Similar to Prebiotic Earth

By Keith Cowing
July 14, 2014
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Abiotic Ozone and Oxygen in Atmospheres Similar to Prebiotic Earth

The search for life on planets outside our solar system will use spectroscopic identification of atmospheric biosignatures.

The most robust remotely-detectable potential biosignature is considered to be the detection of oxygen (O_2) or ozone (O_3) simultaneous to methane (CH_4) at levels indicating fluxes from the planetary surface in excess of those that could be produced abiotically. Here, we use an altitude-dependent photochemical model with the enhanced lower boundary conditions necessary to carefully explore abiotic O_2 and O_3 production on lifeless planets with a wide variety of volcanic gas fluxes and stellar energy distributions. On some of these worlds, we predict limited O_2 and O_3 build up, caused by fast chemical production of these gases. This results in detectable abiotic O_3 and CH_4 features in the UV-visible, but no detectable abiotic O_2 features.

Thus, simultaneous detection of O_3 and CH_4 by a UV-visible mission is not a strong biosignature without proper contextual information. Discrimination between biological and abiotic sources of O_2 and O_3 is possible through analysis of the stellar and atmospheric context – particularly redox state and O atom inventory – of the planet in question.

Specifically, understanding the spectral characteristics of the star and obtaining a broad wavelength range for planetary spectra should allow more robust identification of false positives for life. This highlights the importance of wide spectral coverage for future exoplanet characterization missions. Specifically, discrimination between true- and false-positives may require spectral observations that extend into infrared wavelengths, and provide contextual information on the planet’s atmospheric chemistry.

Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, Antígona Segura, Mark W. Claire, Tyler D. Robinson, Victoria S. Meadows (Submitted on 9 Jul 2014)

Comments: Accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. 43 pages, 6 figures

Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)

Cite as: arXiv:1407.2622 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:1407.2622v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

Submission history From: Shawn Domagal-Goldman [v1] Wed, 9 Jul 2014 20:03:23 GMT (5441kb)

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻