Scientists Uncover a New Means Exoplanets Might Make Oxygen; Sadly, it Does not Require Life


Discovering oxygen in an exoplanet’s ambiance is a clue that life could also be at work. On Earth, photosynthetic organisms take in carbon dioxide, daylight, and water and produce sugars and starches for power. Oxygen is the byproduct of that course of, so if we will detect oxygen elsewhere, it’ll generate pleasure. However researchers have additionally put strain on the concept oxygen in an exoplanet’s ambiance signifies life. It’s solely proof of life if we will rule out different pathways that created the oxygen.

However scientists can’t rule them out.

Earth is saturated with oxygen. It makes up 46% of the crust and about the identical share of the mantle, and the ambiance is about 20% oxygen. Oxygen’s presence stems from the Nice Oxygenation Occasion (GOE) about 2 billion years in the past. Historical cyanobacteria advanced pigments that take in daylight and use it in photosynthesis. Oxygen is photosynthesis’ waste product, and life has had a few billion years to construct oxygen up within the ambiance, mantle, and crust.

So if scientists discover oxygen in an exoplanet’s ambiance, it strongly signifies that life may be at work. Easy life could also be effervescent away within the planet’s oceans, taking in daylight and spewing out oxygen. However new analysis has recognized a supply of oxygen that doesn’t depend on life.

The analysis article is “Abiotic molecular oxygen manufacturing—Ionic pathway from sulfur dioxide,” printed in Science Advances. The lead writer is Måns Wallner, a doctoral pupil in physics on the College of Gothenburg in Sweden.

The researchers have discovered an abiotic supply of oxygen that stems from sulphur dioxide. Sulphur is just not uncommon in celestial our bodies, and since volcanoes produce sulphur and pump it into the ambiance, terrestrial volcanic exoplanets could have oxygen of their atmospheres. And life needn’t be concerned.

As an alternative, high-energy radiation from a star can ionize the sulphur dioxide molecule. Sulphur Dioxide’s system is SO2, and when it will get ionized, the molecule rearranges itself. It turns into a “double positively-charged system.” Then it has a linear type with each oxygen atoms adjoining to 1 one other and the sulphur on the different finish. That is known as roaming, because the oxygen atoms are free to float round in chaotic orbits till settling into new compounds.

This figure shows how solar radiation, when energetic enough, can ionize SO2 and produce Oxygen. Image Credit: University of Gothenburg.
This determine reveals how photo voltaic radiation, when energetic sufficient, can ionize SO2 and produce oxygen. Picture Credit score: College of Gothenburg.

“Upon double ionization, two of the sure electrons within the molecule get ejected and might result in adjustments within the angle between the atoms within the molecule,” lead writer Wallner stated in a press launch. “Alternatively, as essential within the current case, roaming can happen, that’s, the atoms swap locations, and the molecule takes on a complete new form.”

However the constituents of the molecule won’t reform into SO2 once more. As an alternative, the sulphur could break up, and a easy positively-charged oxygen molecule can stay. Then the constructive cost might be neutralized by attracting an electron from one other molecule. Molecular oxygen (O2) stays, and it’s very important to life on Earth.

This pathway to oxygen could clarify a number of the oxygen we discover elsewhere. Io, Ganymede, and Europa all have oxygen of their atmospheres, and roaming could possibly be the trigger. Io is a volcanic place—probably the most volcanic world within the Photo voltaic System—so life is dominated on the market. Ganymede and Europa have subsurface oceans, so they may doubtlessly harbour life. However that life can’t construct an oxygen ambiance like Earth life. One other rationalization is required to account for the oxygen discovered on these moons.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope found evidence of a thin oxygen atmosphere on Ganymede in 1996. The atmosphere is far too thin to support life as we know it. The fact that it has oxygen in its atmosphere means there must be an abiotic source. The Juno spacecraft captured this image of Ganymede in 2021. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill - Ganymede - Perijove 34 Composite, CC BY 2.0,
Astronomers utilizing the Hubble House Telescope discovered proof of a skinny oxygen ambiance on Ganymede in 1996. The ambiance is much too skinny to assist life as we all know it. The truth that it has oxygen in its ambiance means there should be an abiotic supply. The Juno spacecraft captured this picture of Ganymede in 2021. Picture Credit score: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill – Ganymede – Perijove 34 Composite, CC BY 2.0,

This oxygen pathway could occur on Earth, too, in accordance with the researchers. “We additionally counsel in our article that this occurs naturally on Earth,” stated Raimund Feifel, co-author of the article reporting the findings.

This ionic oxygen-forming pathway may match for different molecules, too, and that’s subsequent for the researchers. They need to know if different molecules like carbon diselenide are subjected to double ionization. “We need to see if it additionally occurs then or if it was only a joyful coincidence with sulphur dioxide,” stated Feifel.

Different researchers have tackled abiotic O2 sources. A 2014 paper offered proof for molecular oxygen produced from CO2 when uncovered to high-energy UV gentle. In a 2015 paper, Japanese researchers confirmed that near-Ultraviolet gentle may produce O2 on exoplanets when interacting with water utilizing Titania (titanium dioxide) as a catalyst.

These findings assist clarify how Earth had a small quantity of oxygen in its ambiance earlier than the GOE. Since oxygen is so reactive, there will need to have been a replenishing supply, and these pathways could possibly be accountable.

The James Webb House Telescope types a part of the backdrop for this analysis. Finding out exoplanet atmospheres is likely one of the telescope’s science targets, and with its highly effective infrared devices, it’s poised to disclose the chemical make-up of exoplanet atmospheres.

If it finds oxygen, there’ll be some pleasure. However as this analysis reveals us, there’s extra to oxygen than life.


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