Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Detectability of biosignatures in anoxic atmospheres with the James Webb Space Telescope: A TRAPPIST-1e case study

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
August 27, 2018
Filed under
Detectability of biosignatures in anoxic atmospheres with the James Webb Space Telescope: A TRAPPIST-1e case study

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may be capable of finding biogenic gases in the atmospheres of habitable exoplanets around low mass stars.

Considerable attention has been given to the detectability of biogenic oxygen, which could be found using an ozone proxy, but ozone detection with JWST will be extremely challenging, even for the most favorable targets. Here, we investigate the detectability of biosignatures in anoxic atmospheres analogous to those that likely existed on the early Earth. Arguably, such anoxic biosignatures could be more prevalent than oxygen biosignatures if life exists elsewhere. Specifically, we simulate JWST retrievals of TRAPPIST-1e to determine whether the methane plus carbon dioxide disequilibrium biosignature pair is detectable in transit transmission.

We find that ~10 transits using the Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec) prism instrument may be sufficient to detect carbon dioxide and constrain methane abundances sufficiently well to rule out known, non-biological CH$_{4}$ production scenarios to ~90% confidence. Furthermore, it might be possible to put an upper limit on carbon monoxide abundances that would help rule out non-biological methane-production scenarios, assuming the surface biosphere would efficiently drawdown atmospheric CO. Our results are relatively insensitive to high altitude clouds and instrument noise floor assumptions, although stellar heterogeneity and variability may present challenges.

Joshua Krissansen-Totton, Ryan Garland, Patrick Irwin, David C. Catling
(Submitted on 25 Aug 2018)

Comments: 21 pages, 7 figures
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Journal reference: Published in The Astronomical Journal, Volume 156, Number 3 (2018)
DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/aad564
Cite as: arXiv:1808.08377 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:1808.08377v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)
Submission history
From: Joshua Krissansen-Totton
[v1] Sat, 25 Aug 2018 08:36:41 GMT (2004kb)

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) 🖖🏻