Oxygen as a Biosignature on Terrestrial Planets

Open Access
Harman, Chester Ervin
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 11, 2017
Committee Members:
  • James F. Kasting, Dissertation Advisor
  • James F. Kasting, Committee Chair
  • Christelle Wauthier, Committee Member
  • Christopher Howard House, Committee Member
  • Steinn Sigurdsson, Outside Member
  • oxygen
  • sulfur
  • mass independent fractionation
  • false positive
  • Archean
  • atmospheric chemistry
  • planetary science
In the search for life on Earth-like planets around other stars, the first (and likely only) information will come from the spectroscopic characterization of the planet’s atmosphere. Of the countless number of chemical species terrestrial life produces, only a few have the distinct spectral features and the necessary atmospheric abundance to be detectable. The easiest of these species to observe in Earth’s atmosphere is O2 (and its photochemical byproduct, O3). But the amount of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere has evolved with time, jumping from essentially zero free O2 in the Archean to potentially detectable amounts of O2 and O3 following the Great Oxidation Event. The anomalous abundances of sulfur isotopes in ancient sediments provide the strongest evidence for an anoxic atmosphere prior to ~2.45 Ga, but the mechanism for producing this ‘mass-independent’ fractionation pattern remains in question. The prevailing hypothesis has been that it is created by differences in the UV photolysis rates of different SO2 isotopologues. We argue instead that the dominant process involves combinatorial factors in sulfur chain formation. Because two minor S isotopes rarely occur in the same chain, the longer S4 and S8 chains should be strongly, and roughly equally, depleted in all minor isotopes. This gives rise to negative D33S values and positive D36S values in elemental sulfur. The fractionations produced by the chain formation mechanism can explain many of the patterns observed in sedimentary rocks laid down during the Archean, and supports the classic interpretation that the sulfur mass-independent fractionation signal records the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis. O2 can also be produced abiotically by photolysis of CO2, followed by recombination of O atoms with each other. CO is produced in stoichiometric proportions. Whether O2 and CO can accumulate to appreciable concentrations depends on the ratio of far-UV to near-UV radiation coming from the planet’s parent star and on what happens to these gases when they dissolve in a planet’s oceans. Using a one-dimensional photochemical model, we demonstrate that O2 derived from CO2 photolysis should not accumulate to measurable concentrations on planets around F- and G-type stars. K-star, and especially M-star planets, however, may build up O2 because of the low near-UV flux from their parent stars, in agreement with some previous studies. On such planets, a ‘false positive’ for life is possible if recombination of dissolved CO and O2 in the oceans is slow and if other O2 sinks (e.g., reduced volcanic gases or dissolved ferrous iron) are small. O3, on the other hand, could be detectable at UV wavelengths (< 300 nm) for a much broader range of boundary conditions and stellar types.