How does NASA's telescope find oxygen on exoplanets?

A new approach to detecting oxygen in the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System could aid the search for extraterrestrial life.

Researchers from the University of California, Riverside have developed a new technique that will use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2021 to study the atmospheres of exoplanets crystal, according to the new report.

How does NASA's telescope find oxygen on exoplanets?

Oxygen is vital to life on Earth and is produced by organisms that use photosynthesis to convert sunlight into energy. Searching for oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets could provide evidence that life also exists on those distant worlds, the researchers say. However, oxygen can also accumulate in the atmosphere of a planet completely devoid of life.

Oxygen is one of the most interesting molecules to discover because of its association with life, but we don’t know if life is the only cause of atmospheric oxygen’s existence.“This technique will allow us to find oxygen in both living and dead planets,” said Edward Schwieterman, co-author of the study and a biologist at UC Riverside.

Using the James Webb Space Telescope, researchers will look for patterns of light in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. When the oxygen molecules collide, the event generates a strong signal that blocks parts of the infrared light spectrum from the telescope.

There are conditions in which oxygen molecules can be present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet that does not host life. For example, a planet that is closer to its host star or exposed to a lot of starlight will have a warmer atmosphere. If there are oceans on the planet’s surface, its atmosphere could become saturated with water vapor as heat evaporates the oceans, the researchers said.

Strong ultraviolet radiation from the star would then break apart water molecules in the atmosphere, creating atomic hydrogen and oxygen. While the hydrogen atoms are light enough for them to escape into space, the oxygen molecules will be left behind. Over time, this process could cause an exoplanet to have a thick oxygen atmosphere, Schwieterman said in a statement.