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Could alien life be color-coded?

There's quite a lot of planets to look through. Just as well there might be an easier way to start...

There’s quite a lot of planets to look through. Just as well there might be an easier way to start…

To quote Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

This quote struck us as particularly relevant to the subject of finding alien life on other planets. In 2017, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is due to launch, and the hope is that it’ll find potentially hundreds of planets in the ‘sweet spot’ that would allow for liquid water. And that means life. Possibly. But which do you pick first, with limited time and resources?

Colors, is the answer, according to Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Institute for Pale dots at Cornell University. Inspired by the yellowy orange coloration of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, she has come to an important realization: the colouration of native bacteria can potentially color a whole planet, giving scientists on the look-out for alien life a heads up over which planets are worth giving a closer look.

With that in mind, Kaltenegger and Siddarth Hegde – an astronomer from Cornell – examined particularly hardy Earth-bound bacteria through visible and near infrared light. Plotting these on a color-color diagram (the kind that  scientists use to chart the brightness of stars), the bacteria formed a diagonal line. By following this, the researchers were able to find 137 microbial species whose unique colors, when reflected in a planet, might indicate life on other planets.

“Our results show the amazing diversity of life that one can detect remotely on exoplanets,” Hegde told The Daily Mail.

“We explore for the first time the reflection signatures of a diversity of pigmented microorganisms isolated from various environments on Earth – including extreme ones – which will provide a more broad guide, based on Earth life, for the search for surface features of extraterrestrial life,” he added.

It’s not a guarantee of finding alien life, by any means, but if researchers are torn between which planets to take a closer look at, the one that matches the color chart might be the best bet. As Kaltenegger told Wired, “It’s not that this planet has life. It’s that this planet is more interesting than that other one.”

You can read the full study here.

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