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Photo via King 5
UW astronomer Rodrigo Luger. Photo via King 5

A pair of University of Washington astronomers have unlocked another piece to the puzzle of finding life on other planets. Rodrigo Luger and Rory Barnes are set to publish their article in the journal Astrobiology that suggests the presence or lack of oxygen on a planet could better help scientists narrow their search for life.

Luger and Barnes’ research focuses on planets in “habitable” zones (like Earth, not too close and hot, not too far away and cold), around M dwarf stars, where life is most likely to occur. They say that just because a planet resides in a habitable zone doesn’t necessarily make it a candidate and the presence of oxygen isn’t always a sure sign that there might also be life.

“What the star was doing early on it may have actually roasted these planets,” Luger told GeekWire news partner King 5 News. Dwarf stars start out much larger, which means planets in their habitable zones may have been baked in their early days. Heat and radiation would break down water on those planets, if it existed, and release oxygen into the air, which “might send a false signal to scientists that there’s is life, where in fact none exists.”

While oxygen can be a sign of life, in these cases just the opposite may be true, which would rule out quite a few planets. The astronomers say that a new generation of space-based telescopes will be able to detect oxygen in other planet’s atmospheres soon enough.

Now, if we can just get Matthew McConaughey on it, all will be well. 

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