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The color of plants on other worlds

April 8, 2008
What color will alien plants be? The question matters scientifically because the surface color of a planet can reveal whether anything lives there—specifically, whether organisms collect energy from the parent star by the process of photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is adapted to the spectrum of light that reaches organisms. This spectrum is the result of the parent star’s radiation spectrum, combined with the filtering effects of the planet’s atmosphere and, for aquatic creatures, of liquid water.

Light of any color from deep violet through the near-infrared could power photosynthesis. Around stars hotter and bluer than our sun, plants would tend to absorb blue light and could look green to yellow to red. Around cooler stars such as red dwarfs, planets receive less visible light, so plants might try to absorb as much of it as possible, making them look black.<<

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On other worlds, plants could be red, blue, even black

What color will alien plants be?
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VARIOUS TYPES OF F-STAR FOLIAGE

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If it isn’t easy being green on Earth, where chlorophyll is well tuned to absorb most of the energy in our sun’s yellow light, imagine the difficulties elsewhere in the galaxy. Plants growing on worlds around cooler, brighter or more tempestuous stars would need to rely on red, blue or even black pigments to survive.
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EARTH PLANTS

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For our plants, it’s easy to be green.
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TYPE M STARS

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Type M stars (red dwarfs) are feeble, so plants on an orbiting Earth-like world might need to be black to absorb all the available light.

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YOUNG M STARS

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Young M stars fry planetary surfaces with ultra-violet flares, so any organisms must be aquatic.

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TYPE F STAR

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Around F stars, plants might get too much light and need to reflect much of it.

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SUPERGIANT TYPE F STAR

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A shiny, blue-pigmented plant awaits the scorching assault of its supergiant F-type sun.

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