Biosignatures of the Earth: I. Airborne spectropolarimetric detection of photosynthetic life

C. H.Lucas Patty, Jonas G. Kühn, Petar H. Lambrev, Stefano Spadaccia, Christoph Keller, Willeke Mulder, Vidhya Pallichadath, Frans Snik, Daphne M. Stam, More Authors

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Context. Homochirality is a generic and unique property of life on Earth and is considered a universal and agnostic biosignature. Homochirality induces fractional circular polarization in the incident light that it reflects. Because this circularly polarized light can be sensed remotely, it can be one of the most compelling candidate biosignatures in life detection missions. While there are also other sources of circular polarization, these result in spectrally flat signals with lower magnitude. Additionally, circular polarization can be a valuable tool in Earth remote sensing because the circular polarization signal directly relates to vegetation physiology. Aims. While high-quality circular polarization measurements can be obtained in the laboratory and under semi-static conditions in the field, there has been a significant gap to more realistic remote sensing conditions. Methods. In this study, we present sensitive circular spectropolarimetric measurements of various landscape elements taken from a fast-moving helicopter. Results. We demonstrate that during flight, within mere seconds of measurements, we can differentiate (S∕ N > 5) between grass fields, forests, and abiotic urban areas. Importantly, we show that with only nonzero circular polarization as a discriminant, photosynthetic organisms can even be measured in lakes. Conclusions. Circular spectropolarimetry can be a powerful technique to detect life beyond Earth, and we emphasize the potential of utilizing circular spectropolarimetry as a remote sensing tool to characterize and monitor in detail the vegetation physiology and terrain features of Earth itself.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberA68
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Astrobiology
  • Earth
  • Planets and satellites: surfaces
  • Planets and satellites: terrestrial planets
  • Polarization
  • Techniques: polarimetric

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