Rittenhouse Lecture: "Exoplanets and the Search for Biosignature Gases"

Sara Seager (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

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Thousands of exoplanets are known to orbit nearby stars and small rocky planets are established to be common.  Driving the field of exoplanet characterization is the study of exoplanet atmospheres, with the eventual goal of detecting a gas that might be indicative of life. A suitable “biosignature gas” is not just one that might be produced by life, but one that: can accumulate in an atmosphere against atmospheric radicals and other sinks; has strong atmospheric spectral features; and has limited abiological false positives. Which gases might be potential biosignature gases in an as yet unknown range of exoplanetary environments? New computer simulations and next-generation telescopes coming online means the ambitious goal of searching for “biosignature gases” in a rocky exoplanet atmosphere is within reach.