Laughing Gas Could Be A Sign Of Life On Distant Planets

Humanity's search for life beyond Earth includes our own solar system and exoplanets. A team of astrobiologists suggests exploring for nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, as sign of life in other worlds.

Nitrous oxide can make people giggle, but this suggestion is serious. It's about expanding what we look for when hunting for biosignatures in exoplanets' atmospheres.

Biosignatures are chemical components in a planet's atmosphere that potentially suggest life. They often contain gases that are abundant in the Earth's atmosphere today.

Schwieterman is the lead author of an article on the topic that was published this week in The Astrophysical Journal.

Nitrous oxide may be produced by microbes on Earth, although it is not currently abundant in our atmosphere. This implies that it may not be worth hunting for on exoplanets.

Living creatures can make N2O in several ways. Microorganisms convert other nitrogen molecules into N2O to produce cellular energy.

Schweitermen's team used computer models to simulate how living things might make nitrous oxide on other planets. They found scenarios where the gas could act as a unique biosignature.

The researchers propose that observatories capable of studying exoplanet atmospheres, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, be utilized to look for nitrous oxide.

Trappist-1, a neighboring star system with some fascinating Earth-size planets, would be an ideal testing ground for the idea.