Forms of oxygen created by living organisms can be found in the space around our planet, a new study has revealed, indicating a potential new method for tracking life on other planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way.
The new discovery was made by now-retired NASA personnel Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)a flying telescope mounted on a modified Boeing 747. A recently published study describes how researchers used the telescope, which is sensitive to infrared wavelengths of light that carry heat, to detect the so-called heavy atomic oxygen in the upper layers of The earth’s environmentthe mesosphere and lower thermosphere.
Heavy oxygen is a form of oxygen that has 10 neutrons in its nucleus, compared to the eight seen in the most abundant form of oxygen present in the air around our planet. High concentrations of heavy oxygen are found near the surface of the Earth, because this atomic specimen is usually produced by photosynthetic organisms, like normal oxygen.
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“It monitors biological activity – that’s well proven,” said Helmut Wiesemeyer, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany and lead author of the new study, in a statement (opens in new tab). “So far, the altitude at which this signature extends is thought to be 60 kilometers [around 37 miles] — so, almost the lower part of the mesosphere.”
However, according to the new study, SOFIA has detected heavy oxygen up to 120 miles (200 km) above our planet in concentrations that suggest terrestrial origins. Heavy oxygen can also come from it solar windthe stream of particles constantly emanating from environment of the sun. Solar heavy oxygen concentrations, however, are believed to be much lower.
“The question is, does it reach higher altitudes? And if it does, because there are no living organisms up there, the only way to reach higher altitudes is a good vertical mixing. [of air in Earth’s atmosphere],” Wiesemeyer said.
The findings may have potential implications for the development of new methods for detecting markers of life in the environment. exoplanetsplanets orbiting others stars than ours day.
“The idea is to first understand what’s happening in front of your own door before you go to a deeper study elsewhere,” Wiesemeyer said.
The presence of “made-on-Earth” heavy oxygen so high above the planet also suggests that the air must be well mixed throughout the layers of the atmosphere, something the researchers want to study further. to better understand the Earth system. The discovery could also have implications for climate change research, Wiesemeyer added.
Researchers are keeping an open mind to other possible explanations for heavy oxygen being so high on the planet’s surface, but if the discovery is confirmed, it means that Earth’s biological influence spreads farther into space than as scientists have thought.
The studying (opens in new tab) was published in the journal Physical Review Research in February.
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