Telescope observations are discovering planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun every week. Upon writing this, over 750 of such “exoplanets” have been found - the current count is here. Six of these planets have the potential to be habitable, although current technology doesn’t yet allow us to fully characterize what it is like on the surface of these planets.
Future telescopes will be able to examine the atmospheres of these planets to search for signs of life. Here on Earth, microbial life controls the composition of the atmosphere, so scientists since Jim Lovelock and Carl Sagan have speculated that the presence of extraterrestrial microbial or plant life may be identified by observing the presence of gases like oxygen, methane, and carbon dioxide in exoplanet atmospheres.
But what about more advanced life? Could we find tell-tale signs that a planetary system had been modified or terraformed in order to make it more habitable for intelligent alien species? For instance, when humans colonize Mars, we will need to raise global planetary temperatures significantly in order to live on the surface without suits. Might we, or some other extraterrestrial intelligent civilization, use chlorofluorocarbons (i.e. hairspray) or other aerosol particles to engineer an optimal climate or as by-product of their industries?
Detecting alien “hair spray” in the atmosphere of an exoplanet would be a strong signal for intelligent life existing on the surface. On Earth, (per)chlorofluorocarbons(CFC) are entirely artificial (man-made) chemical molecules that accumulate in our atmosphere, and are strong greenhouse gases. There are no known natural process that can create chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, which makes them a great candidate as “biosignature.” CFCs can be easily recognized in planetary atmospheres because their atmospheric “fingerprint” (i.e. chemical spectra) is very different from natural elements, and are a tell-tale sign that life on the surface has advanced industrial capabilities. There has been a few decades of research into terraforming Mars and other solar system planets (and great science fiction writing!), but there has been no scientific investigation of what a terraformed planet would look like to a remote observer.
Funds raised beyond the minimum goal will be reinvested within Blue Marble Space towards continuing our efforts to communicate science with the public. In particular, they will help offset the cost of upgrading our website (bmsis.org) where we share our science through summaries and podcasts, and support the expenses associated with maintaining S.A.G.A.N., our social and collaborative web platform dedicated to creating an environment of shared learning between the general public, scientists at all career-stages, and students.
We will discover the theoretical chemical fingerprints of extrasolar planetary atmospheres potentially affected by alien industry, and make this catalog available to researchers worldwide. With hundreds of extrasolar planets being discovered, and hundreds more to be discovered in the years coming, it is within reason to think that a small portion of these planets could inhabit intelligent life. Creating the means to detecting such life is thus important and timely.
We are young scientists who have been influenced by Carl Sagan growing up. Equipped with PhD’s, we are now able to tackle scientifically the philosophical questions that Sagan asked twenty years ago. We live in exciting times! With exciting times come exciting questions. We have started our own non-profit science institute so that we can keep working together to tackle these exciting questions, and dedicate ourselves to communicating this science with the tax paying general public, something that is not done enough in our view. We have a lot of experience working together and thinking about Astrobiology, and have acquired a broad set of skills that will allow the successful completion of this project. You may be interested to learn more about our other research results on our publications page.
Who we are in a nut-shell:
Jacob Haqq-Misra, Research Scientist, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science
Ph.D. Meteorology & Astrobiology (2010) Pennsylvania State University
Sanjoy Som, Research Scientist, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science
Ph.D. Planetary Science & Astrobiology (2010) University of Washington
Sara Imari Walker, Research Scientist, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science
Ph.D. Physics & Astronomy (2010) Dartmouth College
Mark Claire, Research Scientist, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science
Lecturer in Earth Systems Biogeochemistry, University of East Anglia
Ph.D. Astronomy & Astrobiology (2008) University of Washington
Follow our progress and stay in touch by following us on Twitter! @BlueMarbleSpace
Thanks all for your support so far! Here is one example of similar research that we published in open access format in the peer reviewed journal Astrobiology. We investigated if weird sulfur compounds made only by degrading algae could be detectable over interstellar distances with next generation space telescopes. If you scroll past all the ugly chemistry equations and look at the last few figures, you will see that amazingly these feature can be detected! Interestingly, these hypothetical planets would be much easier to detect around M class stars than if they orbited stars like our Sun.
A little clarification about our project's budget:
The work for this research is budgeted at $50 per hour. This includes 120 hours for photochemical coding and calculations, 120 hours for climate coding and calculations, 40 hours for the generation of atmospheric spectral signatures, and 120 hours for writing and revising the paper. The remaining funds will cover fees for Petridish, Amazon Payments, and Blue Marble Space overhead. The final paper will be submitted for publication to a peer-reviewed academic journal.
In practice, we will likely spend much more time than this because science research is hard and difficult to predict. We are exploring a new model of theoretical science exploration where crowdfunding is our primary source of support. Thanks for your encouragement, and please feel free to follow-up with any questions!
Hi All! Just to let you know, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity, so your contributions are tax-deductible. Thanks for your support!