Monday, October 17, 2016

Biological fluorescence as a temporal biosignature for flare star worlds


O'Malley-James et al


Habitability for planets orbiting active stars has been questioned. Especially, planets in the Habitable Zone (HZ) of M-stars, like our closest star Proxima Centauri, experience temporal high-ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The high fraction of M-stars (75%) within the solar neighborhood, the high occurrence rate of rocky planets around M-stars, and the favorable contrast ratio between the star and a potentially habitable rocky planet, makes such planets interesting targets for upcoming observations. During M-star flares, the UV flux on a HZ planet can increase by up to two orders of magnitude. High UV radiation is harmful to life and can cause cell and DNA damage. Common UV protection methods (e.g. living underground, or underwater) would make a biosphere harder to detect. However, photoprotective biofluorescence, "up-shifting" UV to longer, safer wavelengths (a proposed UV protection mechanism for some corals), would increase the detectability of biota and even uncover normally hidden biospheres during a flare. Such biofluorescence could be observable as a "temporal biosignature" for planets around UV-active stars. We model temporal biofluorescence as a biosignature for an exoplanet biosphere exposed to such conditions, based on planets in M-star HZs. We use fluorescing coral proteins to model biofluorescence, comparing observable spectra, and colors, to vegetation and fluorescent minerals. Our planetary models assume a present-day Earth atmosphere and explore the effect of varying cloud coverage and land:ocean fractions. UV flare-induced biofluorescence could be remotely detectable, comparable in strength to vegetation on Earth. On planets in the HZ of M-stars, biofluorescence could be a temporary biosignature, distinguishable from fluorescing minerals and vegetation.

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