Searching for biosignatures in the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets invariably opens up the prospect of folding in a search for technosignatures. Biosignatures seem much more likely given the prospect of detecting even the simplest forms of life elsewhere – no technological civilization needed – but ‘piggybacking’ a technosignature search makes sense. We already use this commensal method to do radio astronomy, where a primary task such as observation of a natural radio source produces a range of data that can be investigated for secondary purposes not related to the original search.

So technosignature investigations can be inexpensive, which also means we can stretch our imaginations in figuring out what kind of signatures a prospective civilization might produce. The odds may be long but we do have one thing going for us. Whereas a potential biosignature will have to be screened against all the abiotic ways it could be produced (and this is going to be a long process), I suspect a technosignature is going to offer fewer options for false positives. I’m thinking of the uproar over Boyajian’s Star (KIC 8462852), where the false positive angles took a limited number of forms.

If we’re doing technosignature screening on the cheap, we can also worry less about what seems at first glance to be the elephant in the room, which is the fact that we have no idea how long a technological society might live. The things that mark us as tool-using technology creators to distant observers have not been apparent for long when weighed against the duration of life itself on our planet. Or maybe I’m being pessimistic. Technosignature hunter Jason Wright at Penn State makes the case that we simply don’t know enough to make statements about technology lifespans.

On this point I want to quote Edward Schwieterman (UC-Riverside) and colleagues from a new paper, acknowledging Wright’s view that this argument fails because the premise is untested. We don’t actually know whether non-technological biosignatures are the predominant way life presents itself. Consider:

In contrast to the constraints of simple life, technological life is not necessarily limited to one planetary or stellar system, and moreover, certain technologies could persist over astronomically significant periods of time. We know neither the upper limit nor the average timescale for the longevity of technological societies (not to mention abandoned or automated technology), given our limited perspective of human history. An observational test is therefore necessary before we outright dismiss the possibility that technospheres are sufficiently common to be detectable in the nearby Universe.

So let’s keep looking, which is what Schwieterman and team are advocating in a paper focusing on terraforming. In previous articles on this site we’ve looked at the prospect of detecting pollutants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which emerge as byproducts of industrial activity, but like nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) these industrial products seem a transitory target, given that even in our time the processes that produce them are under scrutiny for their harmful effect on the environment. What the new paper proposes is that gases that might be produced in efforts to terraform a planet would be longer lived as an expanding civilization produced new homes for its culture.

Enter the LIFE mission concept (Large Interferometer for Exoplanets), a proposed European Space Agency observatory designed to study the composition of nearby terrestrial exoplanet atmospheres. LIFE is a nulling interferometer working at mid-infrared wavelengths, one that complements NASA’s Habitable Worlds Observatory, according to its creators, by following “a complementary and more versatile approach that probes the intrinsic thermal emission of exoplanets.”

Image: The Large Interferometer for Exoplanets (LIFE), funded by the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research, is a mission concept that relies on a formation of flying “collector telescopes” with a “combiner spacecraft” at their center to realize a mid-infrared interferometric nulling procedure. This means that the light signal originating from the host star of an observed terrestrial exoplanet is canceled by destructive interference. Credit: ETH Zurich.

In search of biosignatures, LIFE will collect data that can be screened for artificial greenhouse gases, offering high resolutions for studies in the habitable zones of K- and M-class stars in the mid-infrared. The Schwieterman paper analyzes scenarios in which this instrument could detect fluorinated versions of methane, ethane, and propane, in which one or more hydrogen atoms have been replaced by fluorine atoms, along with other gases. The list includes Tetrafluoromethane (CF₄), Hexafluoroethane (C₂F₆), Octafluoropropane (C₃F₈), Sulfur hexafluoride (SF₆) and Nitrogen trifluoride (NF₃). These gases would not be the incidental byproducts of other industrial activity but would represent an intentional terraforming effort, a thought that has consequences.

After all, any attempt to transform a planet the way some people talk about terraforming Mars would of necessity be dealing with long-lasting effects, and terraforming gases like these and others would be likely to persist not just for centuries but for the duration of the creator civilization’s lifespan. Adjusting a planetary atmosphere should present a large and discernable spectral signature precisely in the infrared wavelengths LIFE will specialize in, and it’s noteworthy that gases like those studied here have long lifetimes in an atmosphere and could be replenished.

LIFE will work via direct imaging, but the study also takes in detection through transits by calculating the observing time needed with the James Webb Space Telescope’s instruments as applied to TRAPPIST-1 f. The results make the detection of such gases with our current technologies a clear possibility. As Schwieterman notes, “With an atmosphere like Earth’s, only one out of every million molecules could be one of these gases, and it would be potentially detectable. That gas concentration would also be sufficient to modify the climate.”

Indeed, working with transit detections for TRAPPIST-1 f produces positive results with JWST’s MIRI Low Resolution Spectrometer (LRS) and NIRSpec instrumentation (with “surprisingly few transits”). But while transits are feasible, they’re also more scarce, whereas LIFE’s direct imaging in the infrared takes in numerous nearby stars.

From the paper:

We also calculated the MIR [mid infrared] emitted light spectra for an Earth-twin planet with 1, 10, and 100 ppm of CF₄, C₂F₆, C₃F₈, SF₆, and NF₃… and the corresponding detectability of C₂F₆, C₃F₈, and SF₆ with the LIFE concept mission… We find that in every case, the band-integrated S/Ns were >5σ for outer habitable zone Earths orbiting G2V, K6V, or TRAPPIST-1-like (M8V) stars at 5 and 10 pc and with integration times of 10 and 50 days. Importantly, the threshold for detecting these technosignature molecules with LIFE is more favorable than standard biosignatures such as O₃ and CH₄ at modern Earth concentrations, which can be accurately retrieved… indicating meaningfully terraformed atmospheres could be identified through standard biosignatures searches with no additional overhead.

Image: Qualitative mid-infrared transmission and emission spectra of a hypothetical Earth-like planet whose climate has been modified with artificial greenhouse gases. Credit: Sohail Wasif/UCR.

The choice of TRAPPIST-1 is sensible, given that the system offers seven rocky planet targets aligned in such a way that transit studies are possible. Indeed, this is one of the most highly studied exoplanetary systems available. But the addition of the LIFE mission’s instrumentation shows that direct imaging in the infrared expands the realm of study well beyond transiting worlds. So whereas CFCs are short lived and might flag transient industrial activity, the fluorinated gases discussed in this paper are chemically inert and represent potentially long-lived signatures for a terraforming civilization.

The paper is Schwieterman et al., “Artificial Greenhouse Gases as Exoplanet Technosignatures,” Astrophysical Journal Vol. 969, No. 1 (25 June 2024), 20 (full text).