If an alien spaceship were passing by, there are several things the aliens would notice about Earth, even from a distance. Water, for one thing. And not just any old water, but water in solid, liquid, and gaseous phases. And if that weren’t enough to grab the aliens’ attention, a spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere would reveal another big surprise: oxygen. Alarmingly high quantities of oxygen.
We humans are used to thinking of oxygen as a good thing, something beneficial to life. From an alien perspective, that may not be so. Imagine if I told you about a planet with a 20% chlorine atmosphere. Would you want to go there? Probably not. Chlorine is a highly reactive, extremely toxic chemical. It’s an oxidizer. One of the strongest oxidizers on the periodic table.
But as you could probably guess from the name, oxygen is also a really strong oxidizer—almost as strong as chlorine. We humans have evolved in an oxygen-rich environment. We’re used to it, and we’ve adapted to it so well that oxygen has become a benefit to us rather than a liability.
To extraterrestrials, however, a 20% oxygen atmosphere could be as frightening as a 20% chlorine atmosphere would be to us.
So where does all that oxygen come from? The aliens already know about Earth’s water, so they might speculate about water molecules being broken apart by UV radiation from the Sun. This process, known as photolysis, would turn water (H2O) into atomic hydrogen and atomic oxygen, which could then recombine to make molecular hydrogen (H2) and molecular oxygen (O2). Light-weight hydrogen molecules would then escape to space and be swept off by the solar wind, leaving the heavier oxygen molecules behind.
That might account for some of Earth’s oxygen, but Earth has a lot of oxygen. A lot more than can be explained by photolysis alone. So how can there be so much oxygen? What keeps all that highly reactive oxygen from reacting itself away… unless something is constantly replenishing Earth’s oxygen supply?
These aliens observing our planet are good scientists, so they won’t jump to conclusions too quickly. It’s possible, the aliens might say to each other, that all this oxygen is being generated by biological activity. But they can’t know that for sure. Not yet.
Tomorrow on Sciency Words, we’ll look at a scientific term that you have almost certainly heard of before, but that the aliens maybe haven’t.
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Today’s post was inspired by a 1993 paper by Carl Sagan and others. Sagan and his colleagues wanted to know which of Earth’s features can be observed by a passing spacecraft and, perhaps more interestingly, which features cannot.