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Dinosaurs are helping astronomers in the search for extraterrestrial life

A team of astronomers from Cornell University has made a breakthrough in the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life. By delving into Earth’s distant past, they’ve identified a time when the chemical signatures of life – specifically those from the age of the dinosaurs – were more discernible than they are today. This revelation could significantly refine our search for life on distant exoplanets.

When Earth’s breath was richer

The Earth’s Phanerozoic Eon, encompassing the last 540 million years of our planet’s history, was the period that saw dinosaurs roam and thrive.

During this epoch, the levels of atmospheric oxygen were much higher — between 10% to 35% — compared to the current 21%. Consequently, the biosignature pairs of oxygen and methane, and ozone and methane, were more robust and detectable.

Extraterrestrial life and “light fingerprints”

Transmission spectra, the “light fingerprints” of planets, are created when a planet’s atmosphere absorbs certain colors of starlight and allows others to pass through. These spectra are essential tools that scientists use to decipher the composition of an atmosphere from afar.

The research shows that Earth’s historical transmission spectra during the dinosaur age would have been more distinct. Theoretically, it would have been easier for an extraterrestrial civilization to detect live on Earth during the Jurassic period than during modern times. This is due to our current atmospheric signatures.

Advancing the search for extraterrestrial life

Lisa Kaltenegger is the director of the Carl Sagan Institute. She asserts that by using Earth’s ancient atmospheric models, we could improve our ability to spot signs of life on other planets. Their study introduces the exciting possibility that planets with atmospheres resembling Earth’s prehistoric times might not only harbor simple life forms, but also more complex organisms.

Under the guidance of Rebecca Payne, the research encompasses significant shifts in Earth’s biosphere. These shifts are measured as reflections in the composition of gases in the atmosphere. These findings help fill a crucial gap in our understanding of what signs to look for when examining exoplanets that might host extraterrestrial life.

The charcoal fire window

Payne’s astrobiological and geological expertise provided a fresh perspective on the potential of using our planet’s past as a template for future discoveries. Her study underscores a pivotal period where atmospheric oxygen oscillated within what is known as the charcoal “fire window.”

The charcoal “fire window” is when oxygen levels are conducive both to preventing and sustaining fires. This balance could have been the driving force behind the evolution of dinosaurs and other large creatures. In particular, conditions were prime when oxygen levels peaked around 30% some 300 million years ago,

Implications of oxygen-rich exoplanets

With approximately 40 rocky exoplanets already identified in habitable zones, Kaltenegger notes that the James Webb Space Telescope could potentially analyze their atmospheres.

While the current models are theoretical, they raise the tantalizing prospect that some exoplanets may exhibit conditions that allowed the rise of diverse and complex life forms similar to those from Earth’s own prehistoric past.

The discovery of an exoplanet with an atmosphere containing 30% oxygen would have significant implications. Not only would it bolster the chances of finding microbial life, it could also suggest the existence of creatures as large and varied as those that once inhabited our planet.

While the prospect remains speculative, it is a profound extension of our understanding of where life could potentially flourish.

Glimmer of hope in the search for ET

In their quest to uncover extraterrestrial life, scientists are now armed with a deeper understanding of Earth’s prehistoric atmosphere. They will now use this knowledge as a benchmark for identifying life-supporting planets.

As we peer into the cosmos, the study brings a note of optimism. With the tools to look for a past version of our own planet elsewhere in the galaxy, the search for life has become a little more focused. Whether or not there are dinosaurs awaiting discovery on distant exoplanets, this new approach might soon lead to the first conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life in the vastness of space.

More about the search for extraterrestrial life

Astronomers and astrobiologists are actively intensifying their search for life beyond Earth. This quest combines advanced technology, space exploration, multidisciplinary research, and creative thinking, as exhibited by the recent Cornell study discussed previously.

Cutting edge technology used in telescopes like the JWST are at the forefront of this endeavor. Equipped with powerful instruments, they scan the cosmos for planets within habitable zones. These are regions around stars where conditions might be right for life as we know it. These telescopes actively analyze atmospheric compositions, seeking biosignatures like oxygen, methane, and water vapor.

Mars rovers analyze the Red Planet

On Mars, rovers like NASA’s Perseverance are on a mission to discover signs of past microbial life. They collect rock and soil samples, testing for organic compounds and potential biosignatures.

Each rover serves as a mobile laboratory. They beam back data that could indicate whether life ever existed on our neighboring planet.

Extraterrestrial microbial life in our own Solar System

Astronomers target icy moons such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, where subsurface oceans may harbor microbial life.

Missions are being designed to penetrate the icy crusts of these moons. They will use robots to search the warm, liquid water oceans beneath. These are environments where life might thrive in the solar system.

SETI and the hunt for technosignatures

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) institutes around the world use radio telescopes to listen for signals from advanced civilizations. They focus on technosignatures — evidence of technology or engineering that could only be produced by intelligent beings. This includes the search for alien communication through radio waves, laser pulses, or other forms of interstellar messaging.

In summary, the search for extraterrestrial life is a complex puzzle requiring a multi-faceted approach. By combining the study of extreme environments on Earth with the latest in space technology and astronomical research, scientists hope to find not just evidence of microbial life, but perhaps, one day, another civilization looking back at us.

The research was supported by the Carl Sagan Institute and the Brinson Foundation. The full study “Oxygen Bounty for Earth-like Exoplanets: Spectra of Earth Through the Phanerozoic” was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters

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