SOFIA detects heavy oxygen in Earth’s upper atmosphere for the first time

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(ORDO NEWS) — Heavy oxygen is so named because it has 10 neutrons, not eight like the “basic” oxygen we breathe. Heavy oxygen is regarded as a sign of biological activity common in the lower atmosphere.

Both forms are by-products of photosynthesis, but the main oxygen is consumed in the process of respiration of living beings more than its heavy counterpart, leaving behind a large concentration of heavy oxygen.

SOFIA detects heavy oxygen in Earths upper atmosphere for the first time
This diagram shows the layers of the earth’s atmosphere, from the troposphere to the thermosphere. SOFIA conducts observations from the stratosphere and studies the ratio of basic and heavy oxygen in the mesosphere and lower thermosphere at an altitude of about 200 km

However, little is known about how this abundance of heavy oxygen travels from its place of origin near the earth to the higher regions of the atmosphere.

With its high spectral resolution, the SOFIA GREAT instrument measured the ratio of basic to heavy oxygen in the mesosphere and lower thermosphere, making the first spectroscopic detection of heavy oxygen outside the laboratory.

“It tracks biological activity – that’s well proven,” said Helmut Wiesemeier, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

“Until now, it was believed that the height to which this signature extends is 60 kilometers – that is, hardly the lower part of the mesosphere – and the question was, does it reach higher altitudes?

And if so, since there are no living organisms up there, the only way to reach high altitudes would be effective vertical mixing.

In other words, the only explanation for the high concentrations of heavy oxygen in these regions is the up and down movement of air, which could have important implications for climate change.

The measurement of heavy oxygen is challenging because it is very similar to basic oxygen.

While in the stratosphere, SOFIA was able to separate them against the lunar background: the brightness of the Moon allowed for maximum sensitivity to these difficult-to-distinguish characteristics.

This allowed the researchers to measure the ratio of basic to heavy oxygen at altitudes up to 200 kilometers in the atmosphere.

The results, published in the journal Physical Review Research, ranged from 382 to 468 differences in the ratio of the two types of oxygen, which is similar to the ratio on earth.

This study, which measures the balance between two forms of oxygen, proves a method that atmospheric scientists could use to study vertical mixing.

The results of the study may also help to better define the biologically significant boundary of the Earth‘s atmosphere.


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