Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - 40

The Chemistry of Life

Our story would naively
suggest that these 10% of
systems have a different
history and a different
carbon story than the
majority.
signposts of life such as methane and molecular oxygen,
which were and are placed into our atmosphere by life. Alongside this amazing search for life, we will continue to characterize young star and planetary systems as they form - and
ultimately witness, by proxy, the assembly of worlds such as
our own.

„ EDWIN "TED" BERGIN is a professor of astronomy at the
University of Michigan. In 2019 he received the Dannie Heinemann Prize in Astrophysics from the AAS and the American
Institute of Physics.

EARTH TRANSIT Seen from the International Space Station, the Sun peeks through the thin line of Earth's atmosphere. Astronomers use
similar alignments with exoplanets and their host stars to probe the planets' atmospheric compositions.

40

DECEMBER 2 02 0 * SK Y & TELESCOPE

G R AIN Y TE X T URE: IRIN A Q IWI / SHU T TERSTOCK .CO M;
E A RTH TR A NSIT: A LE X G ERST / N ASA

kling, accompanied by some water, was enough to transform
the abiotic chemistry of interstellar space into the chemistry
with memory that we call life.
Is this story unique? We don't know! We do know that
planetary systems with a Jupiter-like planet at a Jupiter-like
distance from its star are rare - encompassing about 10% of
the known exoplanet systems. Our story would naively suggest that these 10% of systems have a different history and a
different carbon story than the majority.
But confirming this theory will be immensely difficult.
A large fraction of our planet's carbon is buried in rocks
deep down, as part of a cycle powered by plate tectonics
and volcanoes. Such deep carbon would be unobservable to
astronomers. However, Venus has substantial carbon in its
atmosphere, so much so that its surface temperature is above
the boiling point for water. Since Earth and Venus were likely
supplied similar amounts of carbon, perhaps this distinction
is because of the lack of plate tectonics on Venus. If we can
find worlds like Venus and Earth, we may be able to use them
to find out if the carbon in their planetary systems followed
the same journey as it did in the solar system. Clearly, understanding the carbon story of planet formation needs many
more data points!
Over the next decades, we will embark on our journey of
discovery in earnest by finding more and more Earth (and
Venus) analogs. We will use new and sensitive telescopes
to characterize their atmospheric composition to search for


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Sky & Telescope - December 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky & Telescope - December 2020

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Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - Cover2
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - 1
Sky & Telescope - December 2020 - Contents
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