Do Aliens Glow in the Dark?

Astronomers have been searching our cosmos for decades trying to find intelligent life. Every year, our ability to locate intelligent life grows and our technology expands. But could the key to intelligent life be looking for a bit of the shine? I’m not talking Stephen King’s shine...but, glowing planets.

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This August, Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute released Biofluorescent Worlds II: Biological Fluorescence Induced by Stellar UV Flares, a New Temporal Biosignature, which was published in the Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This paper, in short, purports that we may be able to find an alien world by looking for glow. The idea is similar to how bioluminescence works here on earth. Some creatures render potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation into harmless visible wavelengths. These wavelengths create the glow, and also indicate life.

Blaine Friedlander, of Cornell, writes: “Astronomers generally agree that a large fraction of exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system – reside in the habitable zone of M-type stars, the most plentiful kinds of stars in the universe. M-type stars frequently flare, and when those ultraviolet flares strike their planets, biofluorescence could paint these worlds in beautiful colors.” 

As our telescopes begin to develop and become more advanced, they may be powerful enough to catch the glow from these small planets to further analyze. We aren’t quite there yet, but it is estimated that in 10-20 years the telescopes developed will be able to capture this glow.

This bioflurescence may have the ability to expose biospheres we would not notice otherwise, thanks to the glow that occurs when a flare from a star hits the planet. Lead author of the paper, Jack O’Malley-James notes, "These biotic kinds of exoplanets are very good targets in our search for exoplanets, and these luminescent wonders are among our best bets for finding life on exoplanets,"

Currently, there are a few potential exoplanets that may have a bit of shine. One of them is named Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri (the closest star to earth, besides the sun).

Dr. O’Malley-James, succinctly summarizes this new way to search for life: "This is a completely novel way to search for life in the universe. Just imagine an alien world glowing softly in a powerful telescope.”


Image Source: ‘Artist's impression of the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b shown as of a arid (but not completely water-free) rocky Super-Earth. This appearance is one of several possible outcomes of current theories regarding the development of this exoplanet, while the actual look and structure of the planet is known in no ways at this time. Proxima Centauri b is the closest exoplanet to the Sun and also the closest potentially habitable exoplanet as well. It orbits Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf with a surface temperature of 3040 K (thus hotter than light bulbs and therefore whiter, as depicted here). The Alpha Centauri binary system is shown in the background.‘ The image is liscensed under CC BY 4.0, ESO/M. Kornmesser.