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An atmospheric haze around a faraway planet -- like the one which probably shrouded and cooled the young Earth -- could show that the world is potentially habitable, or even be a sign of life itself.

Astronomers often use the Earth as a proxy for hypothetical exoplanets in computer modeling to simulate what such worlds might be like and under what circumstances they might be hospitable to life.

In new research from the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, UW doctoral student Giada Arney and co-authors chose to study Earth in its Archean era, about 2 ½ billion years back, because it is, as Arney said, "the most alien planet we have geochemical data for."

The work builds on geological data from other researchers that suggests the early Earth was intermittently shrouded by an organic pale orange haze that came from light breaking down methane molecules in the atmosphere into more complex hydrocarbons, organic compounds of hydrogen and carbon.

"Hazy worlds seem common both in our solar system and in the population of exoplanets we've characterized so far," Arney said. "Thinking about Earth with a global haze allows us to put our home planet into the context of these other worlds, and in this case, the haze may even be a sign of life itself."

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