Alien life search gets a boost with new methane spectrum calculations

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  • Published: Jun 17, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Atomic / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Infrared Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Alien life search gets a boost with new methane spectrum calculations

The search for methane in the atmosphere of exoplanets, which would be taken as a sign of life, has been given a boost by the release of new calculations on the spectrum of that molecule in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists from University College London and the University of New South Wales, Sydney, used a supercomputer to calculate 9.8 billion spectroscopic lines of methane from the far-infrared to 0.9 µm. This is 2000 times more than any other methane spectrum and covers temperatures up to 1500 K.

The news has generated a wave of excitement. "Current models of methane are incomplete, leading to a severe underestimation of methane levels on planets. We anticipate our new model will have a big impact on the future study of planets and 'cool' stars external to our solar system, potentially helping scientists identify signs of extraterrestrial life," predicted coauthor Jonathan Tennyson of UCL.

The calculations took 1.5M hours of CPU time but even then the spectrum is incomplete, sampling about 85% of the total spectra. At temperatures higher than 1500 K even more spectral lines will be required for accurate modelling.

The model was validated by applying it to the bright T4.5 brown dwarf 2MASS0559-14 and used to demonstrate that the levels of methane in an exoplanet of Jupiter had been previously underestimated by about 20-fold.

Methane is the simplest form of organic carbon and, as such, is regarded as a potential signature of life. It has been detected on exoplanets but can now be measured with far greater accuracy using the new set of spectral lines.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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