Researchers Replicate Exoplanet Climates in Lab to Help Look for Life

Creating an exoplanet's climate in a lab might inform our search for life on the real thing.
John Loeffler

Researchers looking for signs of life on other planets are bringing those planets down to Earth, at least their atmospheres anyway, to better understand how alien climates might give rise to life elsewhere.

Using a 2,000 lb. instrument at the University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers in Professor Greg Rieker's lab can recreate the high heat and pressures of different exoplanets to map the gasses in their atmosphere.

"If we looked at Earth's atmosphere, we would know that life is here because we see methane, carbon dioxide, all these different markers that say something is living here," Rieker said in a statement. "We can look at the chemical signatures of exoplanets as well. If we see the right combination of gasses, it could be an indicator that something is alive there."

Rieker, along with Dr. Ryan Cole, also feel their work can help contribute to the study of exoplanet transit spectroscopy, a technique where an exoplanet's atmospheric composition is investigated using the light that passes through it. 

As it does, different elements absorb photons differently, causing changes in the color of the light that emerges from the atmosphere.

"Scientists need a map for how to interpret what the light is telling us when it gets here," Rieker said. "That is where Ryan's experiment comes in. As we create this little microcosm of that exoplanet's atmosphere in our lab, we send in our own characterized light with lasers and study the photons that come out. We can measure the changes and map how the light is absorbed."

Working with other scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Rieker and Cole combine sensor readings with computer simulations to break down the different gasses in the atmosphere of different exoplanets by using the atmosphere-replicating instrument to see how light is absorbed in different atmospheric conditions.

The JPL team help provide the tools for Rieker and Cole to interpret their results, and everyone is looking forward to what new data the James Webb Space Telescope will bring to the table.

"The James Webb Space Telescope and others like Hubble are looking at the ultimate horizon of what humans can see," Cole said. "Greg and I are trying to make their visions a little clearer. Our laboratory measurements can help to interpret the telescopes' observations of distant planetary atmospheres."

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