Many plants and microorganisms emit gases to help them flush out toxins. Thanks to this, Scientists believe that gases such as methyl bromide could provide evidence of life on other planets.
These types of gases are produced when organisms add one carbon and three hydrogen atoms to an unwanted chemical element. This process, called methylation, can convert potential toxins into gases that float safely in the atmosphere. If these gases are detected in the atmosphere of another planet using telescopes, they indicate that there is life somewhere on that planet.
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“Methyl is so widespread on Earth that we would expect life to play it elsewhere,” Michaela Leung, a planetary scientist at the University of California Riverside, said in a statement. “Most cells have mechanisms to expel harmful substances.”
methylated gas, Methyl bromide has many advantages over other gases traditionally used in the search for life outside our solar system. Leung led a study, recently published in The Astrophysical Journal, that explored and quantified these advantages.
For one thing, methyl bromide stays in the atmosphere for less time than traditional biosignature gases. “If you find it, there’s a good chance it was made not so long ago, and whatever it was made is still being produced,” Leung said.
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Another plus: methyl bromide is more likely from a living thing than a gas like methane, which microbes can produce. But it can also be the product of a volcano or other geological process.
“There are limited ways to create this gas through non-biological means, so it’s more indicative of life if you find it.”Leung said.
In addition, methyl bromide absorbs light near a “nearby” biosignature, methyl chloride, which makes finding both organisms and the existence of life easier.
Although methyl bromide is very common on Earth, it is not easy to detect in our atmosphere due to the intensity of the ultraviolet light emitted by our sun. Ultraviolet radiation initiates chemical reactions that break down water molecules in the atmosphere, breaking them down into products that destroy gas.
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However, the study determined that detecting methyl bromide around an M dwarf star would be easier than detecting it in this solar system or similar systems. M dwarfs are smaller and cooler than our Sun, and they also produce less UV rays that break down water.
“The dwarf host star M increases methyl bromide concentration and detectability by four times the size compared to the Sun,” Leung said.
This is a benefit for astronomers, because M dwarfs are 10 times more common than stars like our Sun and will be the first targets in upcoming searches for life on exoplanets.
for these reasons, The researchers are optimistic that astrobiologists will begin to look at methyl bromide on future missions and in their planning of the telescope’s capabilities. It will be released in the coming decades.
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Although the James Webb Space Telescope has not been specifically optimized for detecting Earth-like planetary atmospheres around other stars, some of the very large ground-based telescopes that will be operational by the end of the decade will be ready. And they would be more suitable for analyzing the composition of the atmospheres of those planets.
The UCR research team is ready to investigate the potential of other methylated gases to serve as targets in the search for extraterrestrial life, as this group of gases is particularly associated with life, and only life.
“We believe methyl bromide is one of the many gases produced by organisms on Earth that could provide compelling evidence for life at a distance,” said Eddie Schwitterman, an astrobiologist at UCR, co-author of the study and research leader. The group in Leung. “This is only the tip of the iceberg.”
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