A team of scientists have discovered an unusual form of oxygen produced by plants and bacteria up to 200 km above the Earth’s surface.
A new study has found that forms of oxygen created by living organisms can be found in space around our planet, hinting at a possible new way to track life on other habitable planets in our galaxy, the Milky Way.
The new discovery was made by NASA’s SOFIA Stratospheric Infrared Astronomy Observatory (SOFIA), Boeing 747SP, which serves as a space-based observatory to measure infrared radiation from the depths of the universe.
A recently published study describes how scientists used a telescope sensitive to heat-carrying infrared wavelengths to detect so-called heavy atomic oxygen in Earth’s upper atmosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere.
Heavy oxygen is a form of oxygen that contains 10 neutrons in the nucleus, compared to the eight neutrons found in the most abundant form of oxygen found in the air around our planet.
High concentrations of heavy oxygen can be found near the surface of the Earth, since this atomic pattern is normally produced by photosynthetic organisms, just like ordinary oxygen.
“This follows from biological activity, and this is well known,” Helmut Wiesemeier, a scientist at the Institute of Radio Astronomy. Max Planck in Germany and lead author of the new study. the signature is thought to extend for 60 kilometers (about 37 miles),” so it barely reaches the bottom of the mesosphere.
However, according to a new study, SOPHIA has been able to detect heavy oxygen up to 200 km (120 miles) above our planet in concentrations that indicate terrestrial origin.
Heavy oxygen can also come from the solar wind, a stream of particles constantly emitted from the solar atmosphere. However, the concentration of heavy oxygen in the sun is thought to be much lower.
“The question was, does he reach great heights? And if so, due to the fact that there are no organisms, the only way to reach high altitudes is effective vertical mixing of air in the Earth’s atmosphere, ”Wizmeier explained.
Vertical mixing is an upward movement of air that occurs due to the movement of air masses in the planet’s boundary layer.
The findings may have potential implications for developing new methods for detecting signs of life around exoplanets and planets orbiting stars other than our Sun.
“The idea is to first understand what’s happening on your doorstep before diving into other research,” Weismeier said.
The study is published in the journal Physical Review Research.