CSI papers published: Biofluorescent Worlds – II. Biological fluorescence induced by stellar UV flares

Biofluorescent Worlds – II. Biological fluorescence induced by stellar UV flares, a new temporal biosignature by CSI members Jack O’Malley-James and Lisa Kaltenegger; email: jomalleyjames@astro.cornell.edu

Our first targets in the search for signs of life are orbiting nearby M stars, such as the planets in the Proxima Centauri, Ross-128, LHS-1140, and TRAPPIST-1 systems. Future ground-based discoveries, and those from the TESS mission, will provide additional close-by targets. However, young M stars tend to be very active, flaring frequently and causing UV fluxes on the surfaces of HZ planets to become biologically harmful. Common UV-protection methods used by life (e.g. living underground, or underwater) would make a biosphere harder to detect. However, photoprotective biofluorescence, ‘up-shifting’ UV to longer, safer wavelengths, could increase a biosphere’s detectability. Here we model intermittent emission at specific wavelengths in the visible spectrum caused by biofluorescence as a new temporal biosignature for planets around active M stars. We use the absorption and emission characteristics of common coral fluorescent pigments and proteins to create model spectra and colours for an Earth-like planet in such a system, accounting for different surface features, atmospheric absorption, and cloud cover. We find that for a cloud-free planet biofluorescence could induce a temporary change in brightness that is significantly higher than the reflected flux alone, causing up to two orders-of-magnitude change in planet–star contrast, compared to a non-fluorescent state, if the surface is fully covered by a highly efficient fluorescent biosphere. Hence, UV-flare induced biofluorescence presents previously unexplored possibilities for a new temporal biosignature that could be detectable by instruments like those planned for the extremely large telescope and could reveal hidden biospheres.

Jack O’Malley-James, Astronomy and Planetary Sciences
Lisa Kaltenegger, Astronomy & Planetary Science