Color in the Universe

The iconic "pale blue dot" image of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles in 1990. Earth is the speck halfway down the brownish streak to the right. The streaks are artifacts, caused by the scattering of sunlight in the probe's optics. Credit: NASA

The pale blue dot is Earth, but what if Earth is the only planet that gives off that specific color? While other exoplanets can and have mimicked the pale blue color, a broader portion of Earth’s overall spectrum shows a rather subtle signature that can only be attributed to life. Earth’s blue color comes from the transparent atmosphere. Transparent atmospheres are more likely to scatter blue light as opposed to red light, thus making the sky look blue. The scattering blue light can be seen from space also, so Earth appears blue to external observers as well.

Other planets are capable of duping scientists with their own pale blue colors. Many types of worlds, including gas and ice giants, planets with atmospheres of varying thickness, and words with “hydrogen dominated or thick, water-steam envelopes.” There is even speculation that Mars could have also been a pale blue dot in the past, when it had a thicker atmosphere. However, with Earth’s specific spectral signature in mind, the color has never been duplicated.

Spectroscopy would be able to confirm the atmospheric content of other worlds. If the world has an atmosphere rich in oxygen blended with other abundant molecules that could only be there due to life. Currently, the telescopes at our disposal can only detect and obtain the colors of young, gas giant-sized planets, leaving more work to be done in observing exoplanets and determining habitability based on color.

Hubble

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The Hubble telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for over 25 years, views the universe with a completely different perspective than what we can see on Earth. While the telescope is not necessarily responsible for amazing images like this one, it can be given credit for other just as powerful views of the universe. Its prime position just above Earth’s atmosphere gives it the perfect view, unblocked by Earth’s gaseous perimeters.

Diversity of Telescopes

There is such a diverse range of telescopes accessible to consumers around the world. Of course, these telescopes are not of high quality in terms of magnetization and clarity. However, comparing accessible telescopes to high-powered, extremely large telescopes that have entire buildings designed to contain them is not impossible, but seeing as these large telescopes are not accessible to the general public, we shouldn’t necessarily expect the same quality from the telescopes  we have at home.