NASA's New Revolutionary 'Sniff Test' Could Finally Find Alien Life
If we're ever going to find alien life, we must rely on the certain tools to increase the power of our senses—radars to detect sounds the human ear cannot hear, telescopes to observe sights the human eye cannot see.
Up until now, though, we never considered that using our sense of smell might be a key component of the search for extraterrestrial life. A new study published this week in Scientific Advances, however, suggests that spectroscopy will allow us to do just that.
"Life produces waste gases that modify an atmosphere's composition, and it will soon be possible to look for such biosignature gases on exoplanets using telescopic observations," says the study's introduction. "In the near future, a high-contrast imaging system coupled to a spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope may allow the detection of biosignature gases on the nearest exoplanets."
Spectroscopy, which measures both radio waves and light, will allow us do detect hot gasses like methane and carbon dioxide by peering through a telescope. As these gasses leave a chemical signature in the form of a smell, scientists will know what elements rely on other worlds.
What does it mean for the likelihood of life on other planets, though? "The simultaneous detection of abundant CH4 and CO2 (and the absence of CO) on an ostensibly habitable exoplanet would be strongly suggestive of biology," the study concludes. "Specifically, methane mixing ratios >10−3 would imply surface fluxes that are potentially biological, whereas mixing ratios >10−2 would imply surface fluxes that are likely biological. Biology allows for the coexisting large redox separation of CH4 and CO2 and also readily consumes CO."
And there you went thinking scratch and sniff was just for kids.
It was also a spectrograph that revealed an unusual green comet to us last year. The comment had an icy nucleus that released nine gasses into its thin atmosphere, including the same methane and carbon dioxide that leave a potent, stinky biosignature.
Another spectrograph called ESPRESSO—a sort of upgrade to the aforementioned very large telescope—is powerful to pick up the signatures of previously invisible exoplanets by detecting the changes in velocity between a star and its orbiting planet.
Lest we forget, it was also the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, that allowed us to view the surface of the sun up close.