Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Finding an Alien Biosphere with Computational Chemistry
At the edge of our present scientific frontier lies the question: “Can we identify the signs of life on an exoplanet?”. Establishing whether a planet is habitable, or inhabited, relies both on the observation of an exoplanet atmosphere and, crucially, its subsequent interpretation. This interpretation requires knowledge of the spectral behavior of every significant atmospheric molecule. However, though thousands of molecular candidates can contribute towards the spectrum of an atmosphere, data exist for only a few hundred gases. Among these, only a fraction have complete spectra (e.g. ammonia, water). This deep incompleteness in the knowledge of molecular spectra presents a pressing vulnerability in the atmospheric study of planets; there exists a strong possibility of mis-assignment, false positives, and false negatives in molecular detections.
The work presented here combines structural organic chemistry and quantum mechanics to obtain the necessary tools for the interpretation of astrophysical spectra and, ultimately, the detection of life on an exoplanet. Whether alien life will produce familiar gases (e.g. oxygen) or exotic biosignatures, painting a confident picture of a potential biosphere will require a holistic interpretation of an atmosphere and its molecules. In this talk I will describe the ongoing efforts to decipher exoplanet atmospheres through the identification of volatile molecules, in particular those that might be produced by non-Earth-like life on exoplanets.