Finding and measuring nitrogen in the atmosphere of an exoplanet -- one outside our solar system -- can be crucial to determining if that world might be habitable. Edward Schwieterman, astronomy doctoral student at the University of Washington (UW) and astronomy professor Victoria Meadows show that a future large telescope could detect this unusual signature in the atmospheres of terrestrial, or rocky planets, given the right instrumentation.

The researchers used 3D planet-modelling data from the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory to simulate how the signature of nitrogen molecule collisions might appear in the Earth's atmosphere. They compared this simulated data to real observations of Earth by NASA's unmanned Deep Impact Flyby spacecraft, launched in 2005.

"One of the interesting results from our study is that, basically, if there's enough nitrogen to detect at all, you have confirmed that the surface pressure is sufficient for liquid water, for a very wide range of surface temperatures," Schwieterman said.

Nitrogen can provide clues to surface pressure.If nitrogen is found to be abundant in a planet's atmosphere, that world almost certainly has the right pressure to keep liquid water stable on its surface.Liquid water is one of the pre-requisites for life.

Should life truly exist on an exoplanet, detecting nitrogen as well as oxygen could help astronomers verify the oxygen's biological origin by ruling out certain ways oxygen can be produced abiotically, or through means other than life, the authors noted in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.


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