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A team of astrobiologists has described a new method of detecting not just water, but life, on distant worlds. There's just one problem – the telescope we need to do it won't be on line until 2018.

Heavy atmospheres (like Earth's) keep water from drifting off planet and into space, so astronomers like to look for them when searching for potentially habitable planets beyond our solar system. Now, researchers have found a new method for detecting heavy atmospheres around terrestrial planets that could host not just water, but life.

The method is described by University of Washington astronomer Amit Misra and his colleagues in the latest issue of Astrobiology. The technique depends on the detection of "dimers," or molecules that have coupled together, in an exoplanet's atmosphere. In chemistry, a dimer is a general term that refers to any compound assembled from two identical smaller units. Misra and his team are primarily concerned with the presence of oxygen dimers. Since oxygen gas usually takes the form of O2, an oxygen dimer actually comprises four oxygen atoms, and is written as O2-O2.

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