We show that terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of M dwarfs older than ∼1 Gyr could have been in runaway greenhouses for several hundred million years following their formation due to the star's extended pre-main sequence phase, provided they form with abundant surface water. Such prolonged runaway greenhouses can lead to planetary evolution divergent from that of Earth. During this early runaway phase, photolysis of water vapor and hydrogen/oxygen escape to space can lead to the loss of several Earth oceans of water from planets throughout the habitable zone, regardless of whether the escape is energy-limited or diffusion-limited. We find that the amount of water lost scales with the planet mass, since the diffusion-limited hydrogen escape flux is proportional to the planet surface gravity. In addition to undergoing potential desiccation, planets with inefficient oxygen sinks at the surface may build up hundreds to thousands of bar of abiotically produced O 2 , resulting in potential false positives for life. The amount of O 2 that builds up also scales with the planet mass; we find that O 2 builds up at a constant rate that is controlled by diffusion: ∼5 bar/Myr on Earth-mass planets and up to ∼25 bar/Myr on super-Earths. As a result, some recently discovered super-Earths in the habitable zone such as GJ 667Cc could have built up as many as 2000 bar of O 2 due to the loss of up to 10 Earth oceans of water. The fate of a given planet strongly depends on the extreme ultraviolet flux, the duration of the runaway regime, the initial water content, and the rate at which oxygen is absorbed by the surface. In general, we find that the initial phase of high luminosity may compromise the habitability of many terrestrial planets orbiting low-mass stars. Key Words: Astrobiology—Biosignatures—Extrasolar terrestrial planets—Habitability—Planetary atmospheres. Astrobiology 15, 119–143.
We show that terrestrial planets in the habitable zones of M dwarfs older than similar to 1 Gyr could have been in runaway greenhouses for several hundred million years following their formation due to the star's extended pre-main sequence phase, provided they form with abundant surface water. Such prolonged runaway greenhouses can lead to planetary evolution divergent from that of Earth. During this early runaway phase, photolysis of water vapor and hydrogen/oxygen escape to space can lead to the loss of several Earth oceans of water from planets throughout the habitable zone, regardless of whether the escape is energy-limited or diffusion-limited. We find that the amount of water lost scales with the planet mass, since the diffusion-limited hydrogen escape flux is proportional to the planet surface gravity. In addition to undergoing potential desiccation, planets with inefficient oxygen sinks at the surface may build up hundreds to thousands of bar of abiotically produced O-2, resulting in potential false positives for life. The amount of O-2 that builds up also scales with the planet mass; we find that O-2 builds up at a constant rate that is controlled by diffusion: similar to 5 bar/Myr on Earth-mass planets and up to similar to 25 bar/Myr on super-Earths. As a result, some recently discovered super-Earths in the habitable zone such as GJ 667Cc could have built up as many as 2000 bar of O-2 due to the loss of up to 10 Earth oceans of water. The fate of a given planet strongly depends on the extreme ultraviolet flux, the duration of the runaway regime, the initial water content, and the rate at which oxygen is absorbed by the surface. In general, we find that the initial phase of high luminosity may compromise the habitability of many terrestrial planets orbiting low-mass stars. Key Words: Astrobiology-Biosignatures-Extrasolar terrestrial planets-Habitability-Planetary atmospheres. Astrobiology 15, 119-143.
The second ExoMars mission will be launched in 2020 to target an ancient location interpreted to have strong potential for past habitability and for preserving physical and chemical biosignatures (as well as abiotic/prebiotic organics). The mission will deliver a lander with instruments for atmospheric and geophysical investigations and a rover tasked with searching for signs of extinct life. The ExoMars rover will be equipped with a drill to collect material from outcrops and at depth down to 2 m. This subsurface sampling capability will provide the best chance yet to gain access to chemical biosignatures. Using the powerful Pasteur payload instruments, the ExoMars science team will conduct a holistic search for traces of life and seek corroborating geological context information. Key Words: Biosignatures—ExoMars—Landing sites—Mars rover—Search for life. Astrobiology 17, 471–510.
A committee of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) has reviewed and updated the description of Special Regions on Mars as places where terrestrial organisms might replicate (per the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy). This review and update was conducted by an international team (SR-SAG2) drawn from both the biological science and Mars exploration communities, focused on understanding when and where Special Regions could occur. The study applied recently available data about martian environments and about terrestrial organisms, building on a previous analysis of Mars Special Regions (2006) undertaken by a similar team. Since then, a new body of highly relevant information has been generated from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (launched in 2005) and Phoenix (2007) and data from Mars Express and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers (all 2003). Results have also been gleaned from the Mars Science Laboratory (launched in 2011). In addition to Mars data, there is a considerable body of new data regarding the known environmental limits to life on Earth—including the potential for terrestrial microbial life to survive and replicate under martian environmental conditions. The SR-SAG2 analysis has included an examination of new Mars models relevant to natural environmental variation in water activity and temperature; a review and reconsideration of the current parameters used to define Special Regions; and updated maps and descriptions of the martian environments recommended for treatment as “Uncertain” or “Special” as natural features or those potentially formed by the influence of future landed spacecraft. Significant changes in our knowledge of the capabilities of terrestrial organisms and the existence of possibly habitable martian environments have led to a new appreciation of where Mars Special Regions may be identified and protected. The SR-SAG also considered the impact of Special Regions on potential future human missions to Mars, both as locations of potential resources and as places that should not be inadvertently contaminated by human activity. Key Words: Martian environments—Mars astrobiology—Extreme environment microbiology—Planetary protection—Exploration resources. Astrobiology 14, 887–968.
Research in microgravity is indispensable to disclose the impact of gravity on biological processes and organisms. However, research in the near-Earth orbit is severely constrained by the limited number of flight opportunities. Ground-based simulators of microgravity are valuable tools for preparing spaceflight experiments, but they also facilitate stand-alone studies and thus provide additional and cost-efficient platforms for gravitational research. The various microgravity simulators that are frequently used by gravitational biologists are based on different physical principles. This comparative study gives an overview of the most frequently used microgravity simulators and demonstrates their individual capacities and limitations. The range of applicability of the various ground-based microgravity simulators for biological specimens was carefully evaluated by using organisms that have been studied extensively under the conditions of real microgravity in space. In addition, current heterogeneous terminology is discussed critically, and recommendations are given for appropriate selection of adequate simulators and consistent use of nomenclature. Key Words: 2-D clinostat—3-D clinostat—Gravity—Magnetic levitation—Random positioning machine—Simulated microgravity—Space biology. Astrobiology 13, 1–17.
In the coming years and decades, advanced space- and ground-based observatories will allow an unprecedented opportunity to probe the atmospheres and surfaces of potentially habitable exoplanets for signatures of life. Life on Earth, through its gaseous products and reflectance and scattering properties, has left its fingerprint on the spectrum of our planet. Aided by the universality of the laws of physics and chemistry, we turn to Earth's biosphere, both in the present and through geologic time, for analog signatures that will aid in the search for life elsewhere. Considering the insights gained from modern and ancient Earth, and the broader array of hypothetical exoplanet possibilities, we have compiled a comprehensive overview of our current understanding of potential exoplanet biosignatures, including gaseous, surface, and temporal biosignatures. We additionally survey biogenic spectral features that are well known in the specialist literature but have not yet been robustly vetted in the context of exoplanet biosignatures. We briefly review advances in assessing biosignature plausibility, including novel methods for determining chemical disequilibrium from remotely obtainable data and assessment tools for determining the minimum biomass required to maintain short-lived biogenic gases as atmospheric signatures. We focus particularly on advances made since the seminal review by Des Marais et al. The purpose of this work is not to propose new biosignature strategies, a goal left to companion articles in this series, but to review the current literature, draw meaningful connections between seemingly disparate areas, and clear the way for a path forward. Key Words: Exoplanets—Biosignatures—Habitability markers—Photosynthesis—Planetary surfaces—Atmospheres—Spectroscopy—Cryptic biospheres—False positives. Astrobiology 18, 663–708.
This paper presents a reformulation of the submarine alkaline hydrothermal theory for the emergence of life in response to recent experimental findings. The theory views life, like other self-organizing systems in the Universe, as an inevitable outcome of particular disequilibria. In this case, the disequilibria were two: (1) in redox potential, between hydrogen plus methane with the circuit-completing electron acceptors such as nitrite, nitrate, ferric iron, and carbon dioxide, and (2) in pH gradient between an acidulous external ocean and an alkaline hydrothermal fluid. Both CO 2 and CH 4 were equally the ultimate sources of organic carbon, and the metal sulfides and oxyhydroxides acted as protoenzymatic catalysts. The realization, now 50 years old, that membrane-spanning gradients, rather than organic intermediates, play a vital role in life's operations calls into question the idea of “prebiotic chemistry.” It informs our own suggestion that experimentation should look to the kind of nanoengines that must have been the precursors to molecular motors—such as pyrophosphate synthetase and the like driven by these gradients—that make life work. It is these putative free energy or disequilibria converters, presumably constructed from minerals comprising the earliest inorganic membranes, that, as obstacles to vectorial ionic flows, present themselves as the candidates for future experiments. Key Words: Methanotrophy—Origin of life. Astrobiology 14, 308–343.
Habitability is a widely used word in the geoscience, planetary science, and astrobiology literature, but what does it mean? In this review on habitability, we define it as the ability of an environment to support the activity of at least one known organism. We adopt a binary definition of “habitability” and a “habitable environment.” An environment either can or cannot sustain a given organism. However, environments such as entire planets might be capable of supporting more or less species diversity or biomass compared with that of Earth. A clarity in understanding habitability can be obtained by defining instantaneous habitability as the conditions at any given time in a given environment required to sustain the activity of at least one known organism, and continuous planetary habitability as the capacity of a planetary body to sustain habitable conditions on some areas of its surface or within its interior over geological timescales. We also distinguish between surface liquid water worlds (such as Earth) that can sustain liquid water on their surfaces and interior liquid water worlds , such as icy moons and terrestrial-type rocky planets with liquid water only in their interiors. This distinction is important since, while the former can potentially sustain habitable conditions for oxygenic photosynthesis that leads to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and potentially complex multicellularity and intelligence over geological timescales, the latter are unlikely to. Habitable environments do not need to contain life. Although the decoupling of habitability and the presence of life may be rare on Earth, it may be important for understanding the habitability of other planetary bodies. Key Words: Habitability—Exoplanets—Habitat—Niche—Mars—Exoplanets. Astrobiology 16, 89–117.
Recognizing whether a planet can support life is a primary goal of future exoplanet spectral characterization missions, but past research on habitability assessment has largely ignored the vastly different conditions that have existed in our planet's long habitable history. This study presents simulations of a habitable yet dramatically different phase of Earth's history, when the atmosphere contained a Titan-like, organic-rich haze. Prior work has claimed a haze-rich Archean Earth (3.8–2.5 billion years ago) would be frozen due to the haze's cooling effects. However, no previous studies have self-consistently taken into account climate, photochemistry, and fractal hazes. Here, we demonstrate using coupled climate-photochemical-microphysical simulations that hazes can cool the planet's surface by about 20 K, but habitable conditions with liquid surface water could be maintained with a relatively thick haze layer (τ ∼ 5 at 200 nm) even with the fainter young Sun. We find that optically thicker hazes are self-limiting due to their self-shielding properties, preventing catastrophic cooling of the planet. Hazes may even enhance planetary habitability through UV shielding, reducing surface UV flux by about 97% compared to a haze-free planet and potentially allowing survival of land-based organisms 2.7–2.6 billion years ago. The broad UV absorption signature produced by this haze may be visible across interstellar distances, allowing characterization of similar hazy exoplanets. The haze in Archean Earth's atmosphere was strongly dependent on biologically produced methane, and we propose that hydrocarbon haze may be a novel type of spectral biosignature on planets with substantial levels of CO 2 . Hazy Archean Earth is the most alien world for which we have geochemical constraints on environmental conditions, providing a useful analogue for similar habitable, anoxic exoplanets. Key Words: Haze—Archean Earth—Exoplanets—Spectra—Biosignatures—Planetary habitability. Astrobiology 16, 873–899.
We describe how environmental context can help determine whether oxygen (O 2 ) detected in extrasolar planetary observations is more likely to have a biological source. Here we provide an in-depth, interdisciplinary example of O 2 biosignature identification and observation, which serves as the prototype for the development of a general framework for biosignature assessment. Photosynthetically generated O 2 is a potentially strong biosignature, and at high abundance, it was originally thought to be an unambiguous indicator for life. However, as a biosignature, O 2 faces two major challenges: (1) it was only present at high abundance for a relatively short period of Earth's history and (2) we now know of several potential planetary mechanisms that can generate abundant O 2 without life being present. Consequently, our ability to interpret both the presence and absence of O 2 in an exoplanetary spectrum relies on understanding the environmental context. Here we examine the coevolution of life with the early Earth's environment to identify how the interplay of sources and sinks may have suppressed O 2 release into the atmosphere for several billion years, producing a false negative for biologically generated O 2 . These studies suggest that planetary characteristics that may enhance false negatives should be considered when selecting targets for biosignature searches. We review the most recent knowledge of false positives for O 2 , planetary processes that may generate abundant atmospheric O 2 without a biosphere. We provide examples of how future photometric, spectroscopic, and time-dependent observations of O 2 and other aspects of the planetary environment can be used to rule out false positives and thereby increase our confidence that any observed O 2 is indeed a biosignature. These insights will guide and inform the development of future exoplanet characterization missions. Key Words: Biosignatures—Oxygenic photosynthesis—Exoplanets—Planetary atmospheres. Astrobiology 18, 630–662.
Over the last 70 years, prebiotic chemists have been very successful in synthesizing the molecules of life, from amino acids to nucleotides. Yet there is strikingly little resemblance between much of this chemistry and the metabolic pathways of cells, in terms of substrates, catalysts, and synthetic pathways. In contrast, alkaline hydrothermal vents offer conditions similar to those harnessed by modern autotrophs, but there has been limited experimental evidence that such conditions could drive prebiotic chemistry. In the Hadean, in the absence of oxygen, alkaline vents are proposed to have acted as electrochemical flow reactors, in which alkaline fluids saturated in H 2 mixed with relatively acidic ocean waters rich in CO 2 , through a labyrinth of interconnected micropores with thin inorganic walls containing catalytic Fe(Ni)S minerals. The difference in pH across these thin barriers produced natural proton gradients with equivalent magnitude and polarity to the proton-motive force required for carbon fixation in extant bacteria and archaea. How such gradients could have powered carbon reduction or energy flux before the advent of organic protocells with genes and proteins is unknown. Work over the last decade suggests several possible hypotheses that are currently being tested in laboratory experiments, field observations, and phylogenetic reconstructions of ancestral metabolism. We analyze the perplexing differences in carbon and energy metabolism in methanogenic archaea and acetogenic bacteria to propose a possible ancestral mechanism of CO 2 reduction in alkaline hydrothermal vents. Based on this mechanism, we show that the evolution of active ion pumping could have driven the deep divergence of bacteria and archaea. Key Words: Origin of life—Alkaline hydrothermal vent—Chemiosmotic coupling—Proton gradients—Methanogens—Acetogens—CO 2 reduction. Astrobiology 16, 181–197.
Microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) result from the response of microbial mats to physical sediment dynamics. MISS are cosmopolitan and found in many modern environments, including shelves, tidal flats, lagoons, riverine shores, lakes, interdune areas, and sabkhas. The structures record highly diverse communities of microbial mats and have been reported from numerous intervals in the geological record up to 3.2 billion years (Ga) old. This contribution describes a suite of MISS from some of the oldest well-preserved sedimentary rocks in the geological record, the early Archean ( ca. 3.48 Ga) Dresser Formation, Western Australia. Outcrop mapping at the meter to millimeter scale defined five sub-environments characteristic of an ancient coastal sabkha. These sub-environments contain associations of distinct macroscopic and microscopic MISS. Macroscopic MISS include polygonal oscillation cracks and gas domes, erosional remnants and pockets, and mat chips. Microscopic MISS comprise tufts, sinoidal structures, and laminae fabrics; the microscopic laminae are composed of primary carbonaceous matter, pyrite, and hematite, plus trapped and bound grains. Identical suites of MISS occur in equivalent environmental settings through the entire subsequent history of Earth including the present time. This work extends the geological record of MISS by almost 300 million years. Complex mat-forming microbial communities likely existed almost 3.5 billion years ago. Key Words: Archean—Biofilms—Microbial mats—Early Earth—Evolution. Astrobiology 13, 1103–1124.
Finding life on exoplanets from telescopic observations is an ultimate goal of exoplanet science. Life produces gases and other substances, such as pigments, which can have distinct spectral or photometric signatures. Whether or not life is found with future data must be expressed with probabilities, requiring a framework of biosignature assessment. We present a framework in which we advocate using biogeochemical “Exo-Earth System” models to simulate potential biosignatures in spectra or photometry. Given actual observations, simulations are used to find the Bayesian likelihoods of those data occurring for scenarios with and without life. The latter includes “false positives” wherein abiotic sources mimic biosignatures. Prior knowledge of factors influencing planetary inhabitation, including previous observations, is combined with the likelihoods to give the Bayesian posterior probability of life existing on a given exoplanet. Four components of observation and analysis are necessary. (1) Characterization of stellar ( e.g. , age and spectrum) and exoplanetary system properties, including “external” exoplanet parameters ( e.g. , mass and radius), to determine an exoplanet's suitability for life. (2) Characterization of “internal” exoplanet parameters ( e.g. , climate) to evaluate habitability. (3) Assessment of potential biosignatures within the environmental context (components 1–2), including corroborating evidence. (4) Exclusion of false positives. We propose that resulting posterior Bayesian probabilities of life's existence map to five confidence levels, ranging from “very likely” (90–100%) to “very unlikely” (<10%) inhabited. Key Words: Bayesian statistics—Biosignatures—Drake equation—Exoplanets—Habitability—Planetary science. Astrobiology 18, 709–738.
The search for traces of life is one of the principal objectives of Mars exploration. Central to this objective is the concept of habitability, the set of conditions that allows the appearance of life and successful establishment of microorganisms in any one location. While environmental conditions may have been conducive to the appearance of life early in martian history, habitable conditions were always heterogeneous on a spatial scale and in a geological time frame. This “punctuated” scenario of habitability would have had important consequences for the evolution of martian life, as well as for the presence and preservation of traces of life at a specific landing site. We hypothesize that, given the lack of long-term, continuous habitability, if martian life developed, it was (and may still be) chemotrophic and anaerobic. Obtaining nutrition from the same kinds of sources as early terrestrial chemotrophic life and living in the same kinds of environments, the fossilized traces of the latter serve as useful proxies for understanding the potential distribution of martian chemotrophs and their fossilized traces. Thus, comparison with analog, anaerobic, volcanic terrestrial environments (Early Archean >3.5–3.33 Ga) shows that the fossil remains of chemotrophs in such environments were common, although sparsely distributed, except in the vicinity of hydrothermal activity where nutrients were readily available. Moreover, the traces of these kinds of microorganisms can be well preserved, provided that they are rapidly mineralized and that the sediments in which they occur are rapidly cemented. We evaluate the biogenicity of these signatures by comparing them to possible abiotic features. Finally, we discuss the implications of different scenarios for life on Mars for detection by in situ exploration, ranging from its non-appearance, through preserved traces of life, to the presence of living microorganisms. Key Words: Mars—Early Earth—Anaerobic chemotrophs—Biosignatures—Astrobiology missions to Mars. Astrobiology 15, 998–1029.
The Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) instrument onboard the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars rover (to launch in July, 2020) will analyze volatile and refractory organic compounds in martian surface and subsurface sediments. In this study, we describe the design, current status of development, and analytical capabilities of the instrument. Data acquired on preliminary MOMA flight-like hardware and experimental setups are also presented, illustrating their contribution to the overall science return of the mission. Key Words: Mars—Mass spectrometry—Life detection—Planetary instrumentation. Astrobiology 17, 655–685.
Methane on Mars is a topic of special interest because of its potential association with microbial life. The variable detections of methane by the Curiosity rover, orbiters, and terrestrial telescopes, coupled with methane's short lifetime in the martian atmosphere, may imply an active gas source in the planet's subsurface, with migration and surface emission processes similar to those known on Earth as “gas seepage.” Here, we review the variety of subsurface processes that could result in methane seepage on Mars. Such methane could originate from abiotic chemical reactions, thermogenic alteration of abiotic or biotic organic matter, and ancient or extant microbial metabolism. These processes can occur over a wide range of temperatures, in both sedimentary and igneous rocks, and together they enhance the possibility that significant amounts of methane could have formed on early Mars. Methane seepage to the surface would occur preferentially along faults and fractures, through focused macro-seeps and/or diffuse microseepage exhalations. Our work highlights the types of features on Mars that could be associated with methane release, including mud-volcano-like mounds in Acidalia or Utopia; proposed ancient springs in Gusev Crater, Arabia Terra, and Valles Marineris; and rims of large impact craters. These could have been locations of past macro-seeps and may still emit methane today. Microseepage could occur through faults along the dichotomy or fractures such as those at Nili Fossae, Cerberus Fossae, the Argyre impact, and those produced in serpentinized rocks. Martian microseepage would be extremely difficult to detect remotely yet could constitute a significant gas source. We emphasize that the most definitive detection of methane seepage from different release candidates would be best provided by measurements performed in the ground or at the ground-atmosphere interface by landers or rovers and that the technology for such detection is currently available. Key Words: Mars—Methane—Seepage—Clathrate—Fischer-Tropsch—Serpentinization. Astrobiology 17, 1233–1264.
Exoplanet hunting efforts have revealed the prevalence of exotic worlds with diverse properties, including Earth-sized bodies, which has fueled our endeavor to search for life beyond the Solar System. Accumulating experiences in astrophysical, chemical, and climatological characterization of uninhabitable planets are paving the way to characterization of potentially habitable planets. In this paper, we review our possibilities and limitations in characterizing temperate terrestrial planets with future observational capabilities through the 2030s and beyond, as a basis of a broad range of discussions on how to advance “astrobiology” with exoplanets. We discuss the observability of not only the proposed biosignature candidates themselves but also of more general planetary properties that provide circumstantial evidence, since the evaluation of any biosignature candidate relies on its context. Characterization of temperate Earth-sized planets in the coming years will focus on those around nearby late-type stars. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and later 30-meter-class ground-based telescopes will empower their chemical investigations. Spectroscopic studies of potentially habitable planets around solar-type stars will likely require a designated spacecraft mission for direct imaging, leveraging technologies that are already being developed and tested as part of the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission. Successful initial characterization of a few nearby targets will be an important touchstone toward a more detailed scrutiny and a larger survey that are envisioned beyond 2030. The broad outlook this paper presents may help develop new observational techniques to detect relevant features as well as frameworks to diagnose planets based on the observables. Key Words: Exoplanets—Biosignatures—Characterization—Planetary atmospheres—Planetary surfaces. Astrobiology 18, 739–778.
Main sequence M stars pose an interesting problem for astrobiology: their abundance in our galaxy makes them likely targets in the hunt for habitable planets, but their strong chromospheric activity produces high-energy radiation and charged particles that may be detrimental to life. We studied the impact of the 1985 April 12 flare from the M dwarf AD Leonis (AD Leo), simulating the effects from both UV radiation and protons on the atmospheric chemistry of a hypothetical, Earth-like planet located within its habitable zone. Based on observations of solar proton events and the Neupert effect, we estimated a proton flux associated with the flare of 5.9x10(8) protons cm(-2) sr(-1) s(-1) for particles with energies >10 MeV. Then we calculated the abundance of nitrogen oxides produced by the flare by scaling the production of these compounds during a large solar proton event called the Carrington event. The simulations were performed with a 1-D photochemical model coupled to a 1-D radiative/convective model. Our results indicate that the UV radiation emitted during the flare does not produce a significant change in the ozone column depth of the planet. When the action of protons is included, the ozone depletion reaches a maximum of 94% two years after the flare for a planet with no magnetic field. At the peak of the flare, the calculated UV fluxes that reach the surface, in the wavelength ranges that are damaging for life, exceed those received on Earth during less than 100 s. Therefore, flares may not present a direct hazard for life on the surface of an orbiting habitable planet. Given that AD Leo is one of the most magnetically active M dwarfs known, this conclusion should apply to planets around other M dwarfs with lower levels of chromospheric activity.
Most discussion of habitable planets has focused on Earth-like planets with globally abundant liquid water. For an “aqua planet” like Earth, the surface freezes if far from its sun, and the water vapor greenhouse effect runs away if too close. Here we show that “land planets” (desert worlds with limited surface water) have wider habitable zones than aqua planets. For planets at the inner edge of the habitable zone, a land planet has two advantages over an aqua planet: (i) the tropics can emit longwave radiation at rates above the traditional runaway limit because the air is unsaturated and (ii) the dry air creates a dry stratosphere that limits hydrogen escape. At the outer limits of the habitable zone, the land planet better resists global freezing because there is less water for clouds, snow, and ice. Here we describe a series of numerical experiments using a simple three-dimensional global climate model for Earth-sized planets. Other things (CO 2 , rotation rate, surface pressure) unchanged, we found that liquid water remains stable at the poles of a low-obliquity land planet until net insolation exceeds 415 W/m 2 (170% that of modern Earth), compared to 330 W/m 2 (135%) for the aqua planet. At the outer limits, we found that a low-obliquity land planet freezes at 77%, while the aqua planet freezes at 90%. High-obliquity land and aqua planets freeze at 58% and 72%, respectively, with the poles offering the last refuge. We show that it is possible that, as the Sun brightens, an aqua planet like Earth can lose most of its hydrogen and become a land planet without first passing through a sterilizing runaway greenhouse. It is possible that Venus was a habitable land planet as recently as 1 billion years ago. Key Words: Venus—Habitable zone—Extrasolar terrestrial planets—Water—Planetary atmospheres. Astrobiology 11, 443–460.
Oxygenic photosynthesis is Earth's dominant metabolism, having evolved to harvest the largest expected energy source at the surface of most terrestrial habitable zone planets. Using CO 2 and H 2 O—molecules that are expected to be abundant and widespread on habitable terrestrial planets—oxygenic photosynthesis is plausible as a significant planetary process with a global impact. Photosynthetic O 2 has long been considered particularly robust as a sign of life on a habitable exoplanet, due to the lack of known “false positives”—geological or photochemical processes that could also produce large quantities of stable O 2 . O 2 has other advantages as a biosignature, including its high abundance and uniform distribution throughout the atmospheric column and its distinct, strong absorption in the visible and near-infrared. However, recent modeling work has shown that false positives for abundant oxygen or ozone could be produced by abiotic mechanisms, including photochemistry and atmospheric escape. Environmental factors for abiotic O 2 have been identified and will improve our ability to choose optimal targets and measurements to guard against false positives. Most of these false-positive mechanisms are dependent on properties of the host star and are often strongest for planets orbiting M dwarfs. In particular, selecting planets found within the conservative habitable zone and those orbiting host stars more massive than 0.4 M ⊙ (M3V and earlier) may help avoid planets with abundant abiotic O 2 generated by water loss. Searching for O 4 or CO in the planetary spectrum, or the lack of H 2 O or CH 4 , could help discriminate between abiotic and biological sources of O 2 or O 3 . In advance of the next generation of telescopes, thorough evaluation of potential biosignatures—including likely environmental context and factors that could produce false positives—ultimately works to increase our confidence in life detection. Key Words: Biosignatures—Exoplanets—Oxygen—Photosynthesis—Planetary spectra. Astrobiology 17, 1022–1052.