2020 BSJ Blog Editor's Picks Spring 2020

In a galaxy far, far away…extragalactic oxygen sighted for the first time

By Nanda Nayak


On June 27th 2019, Matty Roberts listened to an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, where conspiracy theorist Bob Lazar talked about aliens hidden in a United States Air Force facility. Roberts, inspired by the podcast, decided to jokingly create a Facebook event, and so the Area 51 raid –– Roberts’ brainchild –– was born.

The idea of a raid to find alien life took the world by storm: thousands of satirical memes and posts were created about Area 51, and Rapper Lil Nas X even released an alien-themed remix of his popular song “Old Town Road.” The United States Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews released an official statement acknowledging the raid and dissuading citizens from storming a government military base. In the end, no one actually entered Area 51 to confirm or deny the existence of alien life, but the sensationalist media impact that this event had is undeniable. 

Humans have been looking for alien life since 1440 BC. NASA even has an Exoplanet Exploration Program dedicated to the search for “habitable planets and life beyond our solar system.” A crucial tool this team utilizes is light spectroscopy, the analysis of the visible spectrum, in recognizing the presence of gases. White light, when passed through a spectrum, is broken down into the constituent colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet). However, certain gases absorb specific wavelengths of light, and black lines in this rainbow spectrum can indicate the presence of certain gases or chemicals. Through the analysis of light emitted from certain stars and galaxies, astronomers have been able to deduce the chemical composition of planets in space, which is useful in evaluating the possibility of life forms on these planets.

A pattern of black bands that indicate oxygen in an absorption spectrum is treated as possible evidence of extraterrestrial life. Oxygen is one of the six main elements associated with life on Earth, and researchers often consider the presence of oxygen as a possible signal. Consequently, the search for oxygen is often treated as a sub-quest in the search for extraterrestrial life in our universe.

Figure 1. An absorption spectrum of common periodic elements. The black bands indicate light that is absorbed at certain frequencies, and describes the elements correlated with such an absorption pattern. This analysis of light spectrums, called “light spectroscopy,” is useful in astronomy for identifying the chemical composition of planets and stars.

 Until recently, oxygen had only been discovered in the Milky Way, and never outside our galaxy. Though oxygen is considered the third most abundant element, the task of discovering extragalactic oxygen was not as simple as it seemed. Part of the difficulty in discovering molecular oxygen is due to the obscuration of O2 lines. The Earth’s atmosphere blocks most radiation, so it is often difficult for oxygen signals to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere to reach astronomer’s telescopes. Previous attempts over the last two decades to find oxygen in other galaxies were largely hindered by gaseous elements that shrouded space and made clear telescoping vision difficult.

In January 2020, astronomers from China’s Shanghai Astronomical Observatory were the first to successfully recognize extragalactic molecular oxygen. The astronomers utilized radio telescopes in order to detect radiation at a wavelength that corresponded to oxygen in its “breathable” form, coming from a galaxy called Markarian 231 (Mrk 231).

Even though the researchers found “breathable oxygen,” it isn’t really accessible or breathable for humans. Mrk 231 is located 560 million light years from Earth, making the galaxy far, far away (and infeasible to travel to). In addition, Mrk 231’s atmospheric gaseous composition is also not the same as Earth’s, which is problematic since other gases in Earth’s atmosphere are essential in allowing humans to breathe.

However, these limitations haven’t stopped fanatics and scientific minds alike from jumping at the opportunity to speculate about the possibility of alien life on Mrk 231 given the presence of molecular oxygen. This discovery has opened up the possibility of even more oxygen in outer space just waiting to be found, and with it, the renewed possibility of extraterrestrial life. While the search for oxygen and alien life will continue, one thing remains clear: this fascinating discovery has major implications for future astronomical research.


Works Cited

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