Using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists have shown that it will be possible to detect ozone in the atmospheres of exoplanets, using larger telescopes while observing transits of those exoplanets across the face of their star.
What the scientists did was aim Hubble at the Moon during a lunar eclipse. Moreover, they timed the observations so that the sunlight hitting the Moon and reflecting back to Earth (and Hubble) had also traveled through the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to the Moon.
They then looked at the spectrum of that light, and were able to glean from it the spectral signal of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere. When giant ground-based telescopes under construction now come on line in the coming decades they will have the ability to do this with transiting exoplanets.
The measurements detected the strong spectral fingerprint of ozone, a key prerequisite for the presence – and possible evolution – of life as we know it in an exo-Earth. Although some ozone signatures had been detected in previous ground-based observations during lunar eclipses, Hubble’s study represents the strongest detection of the molecule to date because it can look at the ultraviolet light, which is absorbed by our atmosphere and does not reach the ground. On Earth, photosynthesis over billions of years is responsible for our planet’s high oxygen levels and thick ozone layer. Only 600 million years ago Earth’s atmosphere had built up enough ozone to shield life from the Sun’s lethal ultraviolet radiation. That made it safe for the first land-based life to migrate out of our oceans.
“Finding ozone in the spectrum of an exo-Earth would be significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is a byproduct of life,” explained Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Colorado, USA, lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.
Ozone does not guarantee the presence of life on an exoplanet, but combined with other detections, such as oxygen and methane, would raise the odds significantly.
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