2015 Annual Science Report

VPL at University of Washington Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

Astronomical Biosignatures, False Positives for Life, and Implications for Future Space Telescopes

Project Summary

In this task, we identify novel biosignatures and also identify “false positives” for life, which are ways for non-biological processes to mimic proposed biosignatures. Of primary concern are false positives that could mimic easier to detect biosignatures like O2, which we plan to search for with future space-based telescopes. This is a growing area of research that VPL’s past work has motivated, leading to multiple research teams across the planet following our example. Our work continues to be at the forefront of this area of work, as we have identified new non-biological mechanisms for mimicking signs of life. Further, we explained the ways in which these non-biological mechanisms could be identified, and “true positives” from biology confirmed with secondary measurements. Finally, we communicated these lessons to various teams that are studying concepts for future missions that would search for these signs of life. This connection to missions will ensure that our research is incorporated into those missions, so that they will not be “tricked” by these false positives.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
10 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

This research is divided into two main areas, the development and identification of novel biosignatures, and the in depth study of the robustness of known biosignatures by searching for possible false positives, i.e. planetary processes that may mimic a known biosignature.

In novel biosignatures, Schwieterman and Meadows collaborated with Cockell of the UK Center for Astrobiology to conduct an interdisciplinary study of the diversity and detectability of non-photosynthetic pigments as biosignatures, especially for halophiles (Schwieterman et al., 2015a). This study included reflectance spectra measurements of a diverse collection of pigmented non-photosynthetic organisms and an analysis of the remote detectability of analogs of these organisms in disk-averaged spectra, with a planetary environment that includes other surfaces, an atmosphere and clouds. These spectra are now available through the existing VPL Biological Pigments Database (http://vplapps.astro.washington.edu/pigments).

Figure 1. Diurnally averaged spectral albedos from the Virtual Planetary Laboratory’s 3-D Earth model for March 18–19, 2008, under a realistic scenario (blue) from Robinson et al. (2011) and a scenario that is identical with the exception that the spectral reflectance of the ocean surface has been replaced by the spectral reflectance of a pigmented halophile-dominated saltern pond from work by Dalton et al. (2009) (pink). Major gaseous absorption features are labeled. (Schwieterman et al, 2015a)
Figure 1. Diurnally averaged spectral albedos from the Virtual Planetary Laboratory’s 3-D Earth model for March 18–19, 2008, under a realistic scenario (blue) from Robinson et al. (2011) and a scenario that is identical with the exception that the spectral reflectance of the ocean surface has been replaced by the spectral reflectance of a pigmented halophile-dominated saltern pond from work by Dalton et al. (2009) (pink). Major gaseous absorption features are labeled. (Schwieterman et al, 2015a)

In other innovative work on biosignature definition, Krissansen-Totton, Catling and colleague tested the idea that atmospheric chemical disequilibrium can act as a biosignature. They performed the first detailed quantification of thermodynamic disequilibrium in Solar System planetary atmospheres, presenting their work at AbSciCon 2015 (Krissansen Totton et al., 2015 and eventually published as (Krissansen-Totton et al., 2016). The work involved calculating the equilibrium abundances for atmospheric gases using Gibbs free energy minimization, and then calculating the Gibbs energy difference between observed and equilibrium states of an atmosphere to quantify the degree of disequilibrium. They showed that the Earth has ~20 times the thermodynamic chemical disequilibrium of other planets because of the biosphere. They identified that most of the disequilibrium comes from the coexistence of O2, N2 and (liquid) H2O instead of thermodynamically more stable nitric acid. This strong disequilibrium is due to biology: photosynthesis supplies the O2 directly while N2 is produced indirectly through denitrification that uses organic matter.

Work is continuing on the topic of biosignatures and disequilibrium with an effort to identify “anti-biosignatures”, where the free energy of abiotic disequilibrium is present but there is no life on a planet’s surface to exploit the free energy. They began by examining the minimum biosphere compatible with carbon monoxide (CO) on Mars, which ordinarily is consumed by a large range of microbes with overall reaction CO + H2O → CO2 + H2. This is done by introducing a biological sink to a 1D Mars photochemical model and finding the maximum possible biological sink consistent with the observed mixing ratios (Fig. 2). This biological sink can then be converted to an approximate biomass. Preliminary results suggest the maximum Martian biomass that could be supported by CO metabolism in the top 1 km of regolith is 0.01 cells/cm3. This biomass is approximately equivalent to less than 100 blue whales across the entire surface of Mars, which is vanishingly small compared to the Earth’s biomass. This work also involved graduate student Steven Sholes, who has been running 1D Mars photochemical models. Future work will examine kinetic measures of disequilibrium rather than thermodynamic ones.

Figure 2. Spectrum (blue) of photochemical high-O<sub>2</sub>/CO GJ 876 atmosphere from Harman et al. (2015) in the JWST-NIRISS band. Data points and 1σ error bars were generated with the JWST instrument simulator (Deming et al. 2009) assuming 65 hr integrations (10 transits of GJ 876) and photon-limited noise. This atmosphere shows strong signals from CO<sub>2</sub> and CO, indicating that photolysis of CO<sub>2</sub> is occuring, and recombination of CO and O is slowed. This may indicate that this planet will have an abiotic O<sub>2</sub> signal. (Schwieterman et al, 2016)
Figure 2. Spectrum (blue) of photochemical high-O2/CO GJ 876 atmosphere from Harman et al. (2015) in the JWST-NIRISS band. Data points and 1σ error bars were generated with the JWST instrument simulator (Deming et al. 2009) assuming 65 hr integrations (10 transits of GJ 876) and photon-limited noise. This atmosphere shows strong signals from CO2 and CO, indicating that photolysis of CO2 is occuring, and recombination of CO and O is slowed. This may indicate that this planet will have an abiotic O2 signal. (Schwieterman et al, 2016)

In the area of false positives for previously considered robust biosignatures, this past year, three separate modeling investigations found cases in which O2 and/or O3 could build up abiotically in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. This builds on our work in other tasks (Living Planet, Observer, and Earth Through Time) which has shown us how planetary system components act and interact in complex ways. Gao et al. (2015) used VPL models to show that for a planet orbiting an M dwarf with a high FUV/NUV flux ratio—if the planetary atmosphere is dry and CO2-dominated—then recombination of the products of CO2 photolysis is inhibited. The atmosphere can then build up CO and O2 in 103-104 years, with abundances of abiotic O2 and O3 rivaling that of modern Earth (Gao et al. 2015). In this case, the abiotic production of the O2 is given away by the lack of water in the planetary spectra. However, via the same mechanism of CO2 photolysis, Harman et al. (2015) did a comparison of stellar types, and showed that for planets with liquid water, while abiotic O2 should not accumulate to detectable levels around F and G stars, with K and M stars, the low near-UV flux may allow build-up of O2 if the sinks for O2 are low; meanwhile, O3 could be detectable for a wider range of stars (Harman et al. 2015). Instead of CO2, Luger and Barnes (2015) looked at extreme atmospheric H2O loss during the early high luminosity phase of M dwarfs for planets. For planets that form at the position that will become the 5-Gyr habitable zone, atmospheric evolution is sufficiently severe that the planet can generate large amounts of atmospheric O2 while retaining liquid water (Luger and Barnes, 2015). Thus O2 and O3 detection alone are not robust biosignatures but must be accompanied by knowledge of stellar parameters and a more comprehensive census of atmospheric composition and conditions on terrestrial exoplanets to rule out false positives.

As the direct detection of nitrogen would provide a means to characterize the bulk atmosphere of potentially habitable exoplanets and constrain the likelihood of oxygen production by abiotic processes, Schwieterman et al. (2015) explored a novel way to detect and quantify N2 in planetary atmospheres. Although the N2 molecule is extremely challenging to observe in exoplanet spectra, N2 has a collisional-induced absorption band near 4.2 µm, which is significant in Earth’s spectrum and potentially in those of Earth-like exoplanets with similarly N2-dominated atmospheres. The VPL team quantified the potential magnitude of this spectral signature by producing synthetic transit transmission and radiance spectra using VPL radiative transfer models (Schwieterman et al. 2015b).

To determine how to best discriminate abiotic accumulation of O2/O3 from photochemical and atmospheric escape, VPL team members Schwieterman, Meadows, Domagal-Goldman, Deming, Arney, Lugar, Harman, Misra and Barnes collaborated on work that produces the first self-consistent transmission spectra of potentially habitable planets with abiotic O2/O3, including estimates of noise using a JWST simulator (Schwieterman et al., 2016). They found that detection of CO (at 2.35, 4.6 um) with CO2 (1.65, 2.0, and 4.3 um) or O4 (1.06, 1.27 um) in transmission spectra would be indicative of abiotic O2 accumulation and could be detected by JWST assuming photon-limited noise. Strong O4 bands seen in reflected light (at 0.345, 0.36, 0.38, 0.445, 0.475, 0.53, 0.57, 0.63, 1.06, and 1.27 um) by future direct-imaging telescopes would indicate an oxygen atmosphere too massive to be biologically produced. This kind of work strengthens our ability to identify true biosignatures by discriminating against the “false positives” when the first spectroscopic studies of rocky habitable zone planets begin.

Figure 3. Preliminary results concerning anti-biosignature carbon monoxide on Mars. A photochemical model is tuned to modern Mars and a biological CO sink is imposed. The dotted and dashed lines show 1σ and 5σ error bars on the mixing ratios of O2 (0.173 ± 0.006%(1σ)) and CO (749 ± 26 ppmv (1σ)) observed by Curiosity Rover. The solid line shows the photochemical steady state abundance as a function of the biological sink. We find that the maximum possible biological sink consistent with the observed Martian atmosphere is ~3x10^6 molecules/cm^2/s. (Krissansen-Totton et al, in prep)

Finally, we leveraged the knowledge on this task for critical inputs to multiple mission teams, which we anticipate continuing in coming years. This includes the direct participation of VPL team members Meadows and Domagal-Goldman on the Exo-C and Exo-S teams, respectively, and the participation of Domagal-Goldman on the ATLAST Study Team. It also includes presentations by team members Arney, Schwieterman, and Lustig-Jaeger to the ATLAST team. Finally, there were formal publications on telescope architectures and detectors (France et al., 2015; Raucher et al., 2015; Stark et al., 2015) on which we directly participated, or on which our work was acknowledged (e.g., “From Cosmic Birth to Living Earths”, AURA Report, 2015).