Using Planet Colors to Search for Alien Earths
Earth is invitingly blue. Mars is angry red. Venus is brilliant white. Astronomers have learned that a planet's "true colors" can reveal important details. For example, Mars is red because its soil contains rusty red stuff called iron oxide. And the famous tint of our planet, the "blue marble"? It's because the atmosphere scatters blue light rays more strongly than red ones. Therefore the atmosphere looks blue from above and below. Planets around other stars probably exhibit a rainbow of colors every bit as diverse as those in our solar system. And astronomers would like to eventually harness color to learn more about exoplanets. Are they rocky or gaseous or earthlike?

In a study recently accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, a team led by NASA astronomer Lucy McFadden and UCLA graduate student Carolyn Crow describe a simple way to distinguish between the planets of our solar system based on color information. Earth, in particular, stands out clearly among the planets, like a blue jay in a flock of seagulls. "The method we developed separates the planets out," Crow says. "It makes Earth look unique." This suggests that someday, when we have the technology to gather light from individual exoplanets, astronomers could use color information to identify earthlike worlds. "Eventually, as telescopes get bigger, there will be the light-gathering power to look at the colors of planets around other stars," McFadden says. "Their colors will tell us which ones to study in more detail."

The project began in 2008, when Crow teamed up with McFadden, her faculty mentor at the University of Maryland in College Park. McFadden currently heads university and post-doctoral programs at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. New color information about Earth, the moon, and Mars became available, thanks to NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. En route to a planned encounter this November with Comet 103P/Hartley 2, Deep Impact observed Earth. The idea was to determine what our home looks like to alien astronomers and eventually use that insight to figure out how to spot earthlike worlds around other stars. As Deep Impact cruised through space, its High Resolution Instrument (HRI) measured the intensity of Earth's light. HRI is an 11.8-inch (30 cm) telescope that feeds light through seven different color filters mounted on a revolving wheel

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