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Alien life: Don't let oxygen fool you

 Oxygen doesn't always point to alien life as per a new study.

Alien life: Don't let oxygen fool you

Washington D.C: Oxygen doesn't always point to alien life as per a new study.

Researchers Norio Narita and Shigeyuki Masaoka of National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) have presented a novel hypothesis that it could be possible for planets to have large quantities of abiotic (non-biologically produced) oxygen.

Until now, it had been thought that if a planet has oxygen, that must mean that some form of plants are producing it through photosynthesis. Therefore, it had been assumed that when searching for signs of life on habitable extrasolar planets, the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere could be considered a definitive biomarker. However, non-biological chemical reactions can also affect atmospheric compositions of extrasolar planets.

Now, the research team has shown that, abiotic oxygen produced by the photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide, which is known to be abundant on the surfaces of terrestrial planets, meteorolites, and the Moon in the Solar System, cannot be discounted.

For a planet with an environment similar to the Sun-Earth system, continuous photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide on about 0.05 percent of the planetary surface could produce the amount of oxygen found in the current Earth's atmosphere.

In addition, the team estimated the amount of possible oxygen production for habitable planets around other types of host stars with various masses and temperatures.

They found that even in the least efficient production case of a low-temperature star, the photocatalytic reaction of the titanium oxide on about 3 percent of the planetary surface could maintain this level of atmospheric oxygen through abiotic processes. In other words, it is possible that a habitable extrasolar planet could maintain an atmosphere with Earth-like oxygen, even without organisms to perform photosynthesis.

Narita said that to search for life on extrasolar planets through astronomical observation, we need to combine the knowledge from various scientific fields and to promote astrobiology researches to establish the decisive signs of life. Although oxygen is still one of possible biomarkers, it becomes necessary to look for new biomarkers besides oxygen from the present result.

The study is published in Scientific Reports. 

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