The Atmospheric Mirror

‘Earthrise’ : A blue marble, floating in a sea of blackness.


When viewed from space, the Earth glows like a blue marble under the light of the distant Sun. Azure oceans lap against the jagged coastlines and pale clouds swirl gracefully across its face, temporarily obscuring from view the brown-green landmasses beneath. From this vantage point, there is little to suggest that intelligent bipedal apes are scuttling around the coasts; confident of their centrality to all the workings of the cosmos, yet mostly unaware of the intricate complexities of its operation.

With the exception of five hundred  operational satellites amidst a sea of orbital debris, one permanently occupied space station in low Earth orbit and two intrepid robotic explorers on the planet next door (Opportunity and Curiosity), humans have little visible presence outside of the Earth. In spite of our delusions of grandeur, we assume that no evidence of our global civilisation could be detected from light-year distances.

However, if we imagine that somewhere in the menagerie of stars that make up our local neighbourhood in the Milky Way, on a planet not too dissimilar from ours, an alien astronomer was perched at his (or her) telescope one night staring out into the dark when our Solar System happened into view. What would they see? Just another star on their survey, if relatively young and brighter than most, but perhaps one of many observed that evening. Initially, the blinding glare of the Sun would obscure our family of planets from direct view. Luckily, there are a number of ways to circumvent this problem. Using indirect planet detection techniques familiar to us such as radial velocity measurements or transit timings, the planetary companions of this curious yellow dwarf star are revealed:  four gas giants and four smaller worlds. If the exo-astronomer ran their observations through their superior spectrometer however, chances are they may be intrigued by the results from one tiny blue planet in the orbit of this humdrum star.

Spectrometers measure the properties of light, first emitted by stars but then altered by the constituent gases of the planetary atmospheres through which the beam passes on the way to the receiving instrument. Different gases absorb light at different wavelengths to produce characteristic spectra and the composition of the atmosphere mirrored in the light can be teased out of the noise with sufficient skill. The high levels of water vapour, oxygen, methane and other gases associated with biological activity discovered in the atmosphere of this planet should result in the alien equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Methane is a ‘reduced’ gas and is usually rapidly destroyed in the presence of oxygen, meaning that detecting an appreciable amount of both may suggest that a biological mechanism is responsible for their continual replenishment. This mismatch is identified as a ‘biosignature‘ – a sign that this planet may harbour life.

Planetary atmospheres are something we are all intimately familiar with. The Earth’s is flush with life-giving oxygen, greenhouse gases essential (in the right balance) to maintaining a clement climate and an ozone layer that shields us from the Sun’s harmful rays. Most of us will never leave its gaseous embrace, and without it life would be extremely difficult. However, we take for granted the atmosphere’s ability to act as a mirror of our activities detectable from astronomical distances, able to reflect the unique signatures of the gases injected into it and hold them there for those with the correct instruments to see.

Further studies by the inquisitive alien astronomer would reveal a soup of exotic chemicals in the atmosphere of this distant little planet: increasing levels of carbon dioxide along with a suite of destructive, industrially produced compounds like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There is no known biological pathway for producing CFCs, so their detection in the atmosphere of this planet is a strong indication of the activities of industry. They have struck gold (or the equivalently rare element on their planet) by discovering compelling evidence for the existence of another technologically advanced species. In doing so, they may have forever altered the way their civilisation views itself – one of perhaps many in a vast, galactic family.

Cloaked in an imaginative example, this is the theory that lies behind using spectroscopy as a method of detecting life, and perhaps even advanced civilisations, across the depths of space. Two promising space telescopes, TPF (NASA) and Darwin (ESA), were cancelled due to budgetary constraints, so for now at least interstellar planetary spectroscopy remains out of our grasp. However, the hope is that instruments of the near-future will be able to examine the atmospheres of exoplanets to search for these signs of life. Until they can, it might be worth remembering that we might not be the only ones able to gaze into the Earth’s atmospheric mirror.

Perhaps we should try to keep it clean?