Detecting 3D vegetation structure with the galileo space probe: Can a distant probe detect vegetation structure on earth?

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Sagan et al. (1993) used the Galileo space probe data and first principles to find evidence of life on Earth. Here we ask whether Sagan et al. (1993) could also have detected whether life on Earth had three-dimensional structure, based on the Galileo space probe data. We reanalyse the data from this probe to see if structured vegetation could have been detected in regions with abundant photosynthetic pigments through the anisotropy of reflected shortwave radiation. We compare changing brightness of the Amazon forest (a region where Sagan et al. (1993) noted a red edge in the reflectance spectrum, indicative of photosynthesis) as the planet rotates to a common model of reflectance anisotropy and found measured increase of surface reflectance of 0.019 ± 0.003 versus a 0.007 predicted from only anisotropic effects. We hypothesize the difference was due to minor cloud contamination. However, the Galileo dataset had only a small change in phase angle (sun-satellite position) which reduced the observed anisotropy signal and we demonstrate that theoretically if the probe had a variable phase angle between 0-20°, there would have been a much larger predicted change in surface reflectance of 0.1 and under such a scenario three-dimensional vegetation structure on Earth could possibly have been detected. These results suggest that anisotropic effects may be useful to help determine whether exoplanets have threedimensional vegetation structure in the future, but that further comparisons between empirical and theoretical results are first necessary.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0167188
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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