Monday, September 3, 2012

Green aliens are so passé.

On other worlds, plants could be red, blue, even black. RED EARTH, GREEN EARTH, BLUE EARTH: Type M stars (red dwarfs) are feeble, so plants on an orbiting Earth-like world might need to be black to absorb all the available light (first panel). Young M stars fry planetary surfaces with ultraviolet flares, so any organisms must be aquatic (second). Our sun is type G (third). Around F stars, plants might get too much light and need to reflect much of it (fourth).

The prospect of finding extraterrestrial life is no longer the domain of science fiction or UFO hunters. Rather than waiting for aliens to come to us, we are looking for them. We may not find technologically advanced civilizations, but we can look for the physical and chemical signs of fundamental life processes: “biosignatures.” Beyond the solar system, astronomers have discovered more than 200 worlds orbiting other stars, socalled extrasolar planets. Although we have not been able to tell whether these planets harbor life, it is only a matter of time now. Last July astronomers confirmed the presence of water vapor on an extrasolar planet by observing the passage of starlight through the planet’s atmosphere. The world’s space agencies are now developing telescopes that will search for signs of life on Earth-size planets by observing the planets’ light spectra.

Photosynthesis, in particular, could produce very conspicuous biosignatures. How plausible is it for photosynthesis to arise on another planet? Very. On Earth, the process is so successful that it is the foundation for nearly all life. Although some organisms live off the heat and methane of oceanic hydrothermal vents, the rich ecosystems on the planet’s surface all depend on sunlight.

Photosynthetic biosignatures could be of two kinds: biologically generated atmospheric gases such as oxygen and its product, ozone; and surface colors that indicate the presence of specialized pigments such as green chlorophyll. The idea of looking for such pigments has a long history. A century ago astronomers sought to attribute the seasonal darkening of Mars to the growth of vegetation. They studied the spectrum of light reflected off the surface for signs of green plants. One difficulty with this strategy was evident to writer H. G. Wells, who imagined a different scenario in The War of the Worlds: “The vegetable kingdom in Mars, instead of having green for a dominant colour, is of a vivid blood-red tint.” Although we now know that Mars has no surface vegetation (the darkening is caused by dust storms), Wells was prescient in speculating that photosynthetic organisms on another planet might not be green. 

Even Earth has a diversity of photosynthetic organisms besides green plants. Some land plants have red leaves, and underwater algae and photosynthetic bacteria come in a rainbow of colors. Purple bacteria soak up solar infrared radiation as well as visible light. So what will dominate on another planet? And how will we know when we see it? The answers depend on the details of how alien photosynthesis adapts to light from a parent star of a different type than our sun, filtered through an atmosphere that may not have the same composition as Earth’s.

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