A simple side-by-side comparison of color data on all the major planets was a confusing mess. The team finally found a combination of three different filters — one in the blue, one in the green, and one in the red — that highlights the differences between the planets.
On a special "color-color" diagram the team created, the planets cluster into groups based on similarities in the wavelengths of sunlight that their surfaces and atmospheres reflect. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn huddle in one corner, Uranus and Neptune in a different one. The rocky inner planets Mars, Venus, and Mercury cluster off in their own corner of "color space."
But Earth is the true loner in color space. Its uniqueness traces to two factors. One is the scattering of blue light by the atmosphere. This is called Rayleigh scattering, after the English scientist who discovered it.
The other reason Earth stands out in color space is because it does not absorb a lot of infrared light. That's because our atmosphere is low in infrared-absorbing gases like methane and ammonia, compared to the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.
"It is Earth's atmosphere that dominates the colors of Earth," Crow says. "It's the scattering of light in the ultraviolet and the absence of absorption in the infrared."
Someday, the three-filter approach may provide a rough "first cut" look at exoplanet surfaces and atmospheres. "There are some things we can tell from the colors but there are some things that we can't quite tell without additional information," Crow says.
For example, if an exoplanet shows a similar color fingerprint to Earth's, it would not necessarily mean that the planet has the blue skies and vast oceans of our home. But it would tell us to look at that planet more closely.
And that would be an important first step toward making sense of the colorful complexity of the 490 (and counting) alien planets already discovered, and the scores more on the way.
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