To practice searching for extraterrestrial life, researchers have run a dress rehearsal with the one world they know to be habitable: Earth.
While Earth was between the sun and moon for a lunar eclipse in January 2019, the Hubble Space Telescope observed how chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere blocked certain wavelengths of sunlight from reaching the moon. That observing setup mimicked the way astronomers plan to probe the atmospheres of Earthlike exoplanets as they pass in front of their stars, filtering out some starlight.
“We basically pretend we’re alien observers looking at our planet,” says Giada Arney, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Using Hubble, the researchers focused on spotting the effects of atmospheric ozone. Because ozone is both a chemical by-product of oxygen produced in photosynthesis and a shield that protects life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, astronomers think atmospheric ozone could be a key indicator that a distant world is habitable. During the lunar eclipse, Hubble examined sunlight that had passed through Earth’s atmosphere and reflected off of the moon for signatures of ozone.
“It’s safer for Hubble to observe sunlight reflected off the moon” than to look directly at the backlit Earth, explains Allison Youngblood, an astronomer at the University of Colorado Boulder. The telescope’s instruments are so sensitive and Earth is so bright that “even the nightside would fry Hubble’s detectors.”
Those observations revealed prominent dips in particular wavelengths of ultraviolet sunlight that had been absorbed by the ozone, Youngblood, Arney and colleagues report online August 6 in the Astronomical Journal.
The data help confirm that chemicals in the Earth’s atmosphere filter light as expected, based on researchers’ understanding of atmospheric chemistry. That finding gives astronomers more confidence that they will be able to recognize potentially habitable exoplanets.