A Geologically Robust Procedure for Observing Rocky Exoplanets to Ensure that Detection of Atmospheric Oxygen Is a Modern Earth-like Biosignature

Carey M. Lisse, Steven J. Desch, Cayman T. Unterborn, Stephen R. Kane, Patrick R. Young, Hilairy E. Hartnett, Natalie R. Hinkel, Sang Heon Shim, Eric E. Mamajek, Noam R. Izenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


In the next decades, the astrobiological community will debate whether the first observations of oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere signify life, so it is critical to establish procedures now for collection and interpretation of such data. We present a step-by-step observational strategy for using oxygen as a robust biosignature to prioritize exoplanet targets and design future observations. It is premised on avoiding planets lacking subaerial weathering of continents, which would imply geochemical cycles drastically different from modern Earth's, precluding use of oxygen as a biosignature. The strategy starts with the most readily obtained data: orbital semimajor axis and stellar luminosity to ensure residence in the habitable zone and stellar X-ray/ultraviolet flux to ensure an exoplanet can retain a secondary (outgassed) atmosphere. Next, high-precision mass and radius information should be combined with high-precision stellar abundance data to constrain the exoplanet's water content; those incompatible with <0.1 wt% H2O can be deprioritized. Then, reflectance photometry or low-resolution transmission spectroscopy should confirm an optically thin atmosphere. Subsequent long-duration, high-resolution transmission spectroscopy should search for oxygen and ensure that water vapor and CO2 are present only at low (∼102-104 ppm levels). Assuming oxygen is found, attribution to life requires the most difficult step, acquisition of a detailed, multispectral light curve of the exoplanet, to ensure both surface land and water. Exoplanets failing some of these steps might be habitable, even have observable biogenic oxygen, but should be deprioritized because oxygen could not be attributed unambiguously to life, and life therefore would not be detectable on such planets. Finally, we show how to use this scheme for the solar system, the 55 Cnc system, and the TRAPPIST-1 system, in which only the Earth and TRAPPIST-1e successfully pass through our procedure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberL17
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 20 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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