Searching for alien earths with planet colors

Nov 03, 2010 By Daniel Pendick
NASA researchers analyzed the light reflected by the planets and plotted the results on a "color-color" diagram. By plotting the ratios of red to green light as well as blue to green, the planets cluster into "color families." On the diagram, Earth is easily distinguishable from the other major planets. Credit: NASA/GSFC

Earth is invitingly blue. Mars is angry red. Venus is brilliant white. Astronomers have learned that a planet's "true colors" can reveal important details. For example, Mars is red because its soil contains rusty red stuff called iron oxide. And the famous tint of our planet, the "blue marble"? It's because the atmosphere scatters blue light rays more strongly than red ones. Therefore the atmosphere looks blue from above and below.

Planets around other stars probably exhibit a rainbow of colors every bit as diverse as those in our solar system. And would like to eventually harness color to learn more about exoplanets. Are they rocky or gaseous — or earthlike?

In a study recently accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, a team led by NASA astronomer Lucy McFadden and UCLA graduate student Carolyn Crow describe a simple way to distinguish between the planets of our solar system based on color information. Earth, in particular, stands out clearly among the planets, like a blue jay in a flock of seagulls.

"The method we developed separates the planets out," Crow says. "It makes Earth look unique."

This suggests that someday, when we have the technology to gather light from individual exoplanets, astronomers could use color information to identify earthlike worlds. "Eventually, as telescopes get bigger, there will be the light-gathering power to look at the colors of planets around other stars," McFadden says. "Their colors will tell us which ones to study in more detail."

Earth the Exoplanet

The project began in 2008, when Crow teamed up with McFadden, her faculty mentor at the University of Maryland in College Park. McFadden currently heads university and post-doctoral programs at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

New color information about Earth, the moon, and Mars became available, thanks to NASA's spacecraft. En route to a planned encounter this November with Comet 103P/Hartley 2, Deep Impact observed Earth. The idea was to determine what our home looks like to alien astronomers and eventually use that insight to figure out how to spot earthlike worlds around other stars.

As Deep Impact cruised through space, its High Resolution Instrument (HRI) measured the intensity of Earth's light. HRI is an 11.8-inch (30 cm) telescope that feeds light through seven different color filters mounted on a revolving wheel. Each filter samples the incoming light at a different portion of the visible-light spectrum, from ultraviolet and blue to red and near-infrared. On May 28, 2008, Deep Impact even caught a glimpse of the moon's light as it crossed in front of Earth. Later, in 2009, HRI scoped Mars.

McFadden wondered what combination of color information from the filters would best distinguish Earth from the other planets and moons of the . She recruited Crow to work on the project. Eight other researchers from NASA, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington (Seattle), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab also joined the team.

The Magic Mix

The Deep Impact color data covered Earth, the moon, and Mars. The relative amounts of light passing through the filters vary for each planet or moon, providing a kind of color fingerprint. To this the team added existing color information about Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn's moon Titan.

A simple side-by-side comparison of color data on all the major planets was a confusing mess. The team finally found a combination of three different filters — one in the blue, one in the green, and one in the red — that highlights the differences between the planets.

On a special "color-color" diagram the team created, the planets cluster into groups based on similarities in the wavelengths of sunlight that their surfaces and atmospheres reflect. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn huddle in one corner, Uranus and Neptune in a different one. The rocky inner planets Mars, Venus, and Mercury cluster off in their own corner of "color space."

But Earth is the true loner in color space. Its uniqueness traces to two factors. One is the scattering of blue light by the atmosphere. This is called Rayleigh scattering, after the English scientist who discovered it.

The other reason Earth stands out in color space is because it does not absorb a lot of infrared light. That's because our atmosphere is low in infrared-absorbing gases like methane and ammonia, compared to the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.

"It is Earth's that dominates the colors of ," Crow says. "It's the scattering of light in the ultraviolet and the absence of absorption in the infrared."

Colorful Future

Someday, the three-filter approach may provide a rough "first cut" look at exoplanet surfaces and atmospheres. "There are some things we can tell from the colors but there are some things that we can't quite tell without additional information," Crow says.

For example, if an exoplanet shows a similar color fingerprint to Earth's, it would not necessarily mean that the planet has the blue skies and vast oceans of our home. But it would tell us to look at that planet more closely.

And that would be an important first step toward making sense of the colorful complexity of the 490 (and counting) alien already discovered, and the scores more on the way.

Explore further: End dawns for Europe's space cargo delivery role

Related Stories

Earth: The Lone Pale Blue Dot?

Nov 02, 2006

A recent photo from the Cassini spacecraft shows the mighty planet Saturn, and if you look very closely between its wing-like rings, a faint pinprick of light. That tiny dot is Earth bustling with life as we ...

Earth-like planets may be found soon

Mar 24, 2008

U.S. experts say known planets outside of Earth's solar system, currently numbered at 277, could soon include smaller planets that are closer to Earth's size.

Wobbly planets could reveal Earth-like moons

Dec 11, 2008

Moons outside our Solar System with the potential to support life have just become much easier to detect, thanks to research by an astronomer at University College London (UCL).

UF astronomers pioneer new planet-observing technique

Jun 24, 2010

( -- Using the world’s largest optical telescope, a team of University of Florida astronomers has pioneered a new method of observing planets outside our solar system. The method suggests that large Earth-based ...

Recommended for you

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

13 hours ago

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

End dawns for Europe's space cargo delivery role

22 hours ago

Europe will close an important chapter in its space flight history Tuesday, launching the fifth and final robot ship it had pledged for lifeline deliveries to the International Space Station.

Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

Jul 26, 2014

A vast crater discovered in a remote region of Siberia known to locals as "the end of the world" is causing a sensation in Russia, with a group of scientists being sent to investigate.

NASA Mars spacecraft prepare for close comet flyby

Jul 26, 2014

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

Jul 25, 2014

For the first time, Spanish researchers have detected an unknown interaction between microorganisms and salt. When Escherichia coli cells are introduced into a droplet of salt water and is left to dry, b ...

How do we terraform Venus?

Jul 25, 2014

It might be possible to terraform Venus some day, when our technology gets good enough. The challenges for Venus are totally different than for Mars. How will we need to fix Venus?

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.6 / 5 (10) Nov 03, 2010
"The method we developed separates the planets out," Crow says. "It makes Earth look unique."

Well, that's because it IS unique. I can state that with 100% confidence. All planets, stars and galaxies are unique. Some might look like others but on closer examination the differences will be readily discernible. They were all created unique, this much is simple to extrapolate from our own experiences of just about everything we see around us.
not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
nice profiling, could i see the usual suspect again please?
5 / 5 (2) Nov 03, 2010
Well, that's because it IS unique. I can state that with 100% confidence.

Really. I don't even think *you're* unique.

not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
You are so close to the point of discovery it is electrifying.

What a backwards little berg this world turns out to be! I want to move the real city.
not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
^^^ umm, okay, bit weird.

Back to sensible comments, I thought no exoplanet has yet been detected by its reflected light yet - they are all detected by wobbles of their parent star or by dimming their parent star. So this sort of planet profiling won't be useable until we are actually exploring other stellar systems,or at least until we have much better telescopes, right?
5 / 5 (3) Nov 03, 2010
I thought no exoplanet has yet been detected by its reflected light yet - they are all detected by wobbles of their parent star or by dimming their parent star. So this sort of planet profiling won't be useable until we are actually exploring other stellar systems,or at least until we have much better telescopes, right?

Wrong. Reflected light from a planet has been observed - look up HD189733b.

5 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2010
Oh, okay thanks :D