Signature of life on exoplanets: Can Darwin produce false positive detections?
Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC), Ctra. de Ajalvir, km. 4, 28850, Torrejón de Ardoz, Madrid, Spain
2 Observatoire de Bordeaux, BP 89, 33270, Floirac, France
Corresponding author: F. Selsis, email@example.com
Accepted: 19 March 2002
Darwin (ESA) and Terrestrial Planet Finder-TPF (NASA) are two projects of space telescopes aiming at the detection of extra-solar terrestrial planets and some of their atmospheric components. In particular, they will be sensitive to the 9.6 μm band of which may be the signature of an -rich atmosphere produced by photosynthetic life forms. In this paper, we point out that , and hence , can also be produced by photochemistry and we investigate the risk of “false positive” detection of life incurred by these missions. For this purpose, we have developed new photochemical and radiative-convective models of terrestrial planet atmospheres. By modelling the photochemistry of some realistic atmospheres, (including present and past Earth and Mars) we show that -rich atmospheres (up to 5%) and IR absorbing layers can build up without life from and photolysis. However, Darwin can still provide a reliable way to detect, through their mid-infrared signatures, ecosystems which have developed oxygenic photosynthesis. Indeed, the two photochemical sources of are shown to interfere with each other; second, when the pressure is high enough (>50 mbar) to produce appreciable amounts of and , it also masks the feature; and third, the by-products of photolysis destroy . As a result, whereas the unique detection of remains ambiguous, the simultaneous infrared detection of , and , provided by Darwin, is established to be a robust way to discriminate photochemical production from biological photosynthesis: none of the atmospheres modelled exhibits this “triple signature”, even in the most extreme “high risk” cases.
Key words: astrobiology / planets and satellites: general / infrared: solar system / stars: planetary systems
© ESO, 2002