The prospect of finding extraterrestrial life is no longer the domain of science fiction or UFO hunters. Rather than waiting for aliens to come to us, we are looking for them. We may not find technologically advanced civilizations, but we can look for the physical and chemical signs of fundamental life processes: “biosignatures.” Beyond the solar system, astronomers have discovered more than 200 worlds orbiting other stars, so-called extrasolar planets. Although we have not been able to tell whether these planets harbor life, it is only a matter of time now. Last July astronomers confirmed the presence of water vapor on an extrasolar planet by observing the passage of starlight through the planet’s atmosphere. The world’s space agencies are now developing telescopes that will search for signs of life on Earth-size planets by observing the planets’ light spectra.
Photosynthesis, in particular, could produce very conspicuous biosignatures. How plausible is it for photosynthesis to arise on another planet? Very. On Earth, the process is so successful that it is the foundation for nearly all life. Although some organisms live off the heat and methane of oceanic hydrothermal vents, the rich ecosystems on the planet’s surface all depend on sunlight.