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Could oxygen be the key to finding alien technology?

A new study investigates the links between atmospheric oxygen and the potential rise of advanced technology on distant planets

A new study investigated the links between atmospheric oxygen and the potential rise of advanced technology on distant planets.(Pixabay)

By Team Lounge

LAST PUBLISHED 06.01.2024  |  12:00 PM IST

Scientific efforts to look for life beyond Earth have been ongoing for years now. Researchers have expanded their search to finding habitable planets, biological markers, and now, even technological markers. A new study shows that oxygen, which is a basic requirement for life on Earth, could also be key to discovering advanced technology on a planetary scale.

The new study, led by a research team from the University of Rochester, investigated the links between atmospheric oxygen and the potential rise of advanced technology on distant planets. The researchers explored whether any atmospheric composition would be compatible with the presence of advanced technology, the university’s press statement explained.

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The researchers posited that oxygen, which is a necessity for respiration and metabolism in multicellular organisms, is also important to developing fire —which is key for technological civilization. They further talked about the concept of technospheres, expansive realms of advanced technology that emit telltale signs, called technosignatures, of extraterrestrial intelligence.

On Earth, the development of technology demanded easy access to open-air combustion—a process in which something is burned by combining a fuel and an oxidant, usually oxygen, the statement elaborated. From cooking to making materials to constructing homes, combustion is the crux of modern society. The findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The controlled use of fire and metallurgical advancements were possible when oxygen levels in the atmosphere reached or exceeded 18. Hence, this could mean that planets with significant oxygen concentrations will be capable of developing advanced technospheres, and, therefore, they might leave behind technosignatures.

“You might be able to get biology—you might even be able to get intelligent creatures—in a world that doesn’t have oxygen," study author Adam Frank said in the statement. However, without a source of fire, there is no way to develop higher technology because higher technology requires fuel and melting, he added.

To mark this, the researchers have come up with the term ‘oxygen bottleneck,’ which refers to the threshold that separates planets capable of fostering technological civilizations from those that cannot. “You can have everything else work out, but if you don’t have oxygen in the atmosphere, you’re not going to have a technological species," Frank added in the statement.

Hence, the researchers suggest that planets with high oxygen levels should be prioritised because it could be a major clue in finding potential technosignatures.

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