Assessment of Ammonia as a Biosignature Gas in Exoplanet Atmospheres
Ammonia (NH3) in a terrestrial planet atmosphere is generally a good biosignature gas, primarily because terrestrial planets have no significant known abiotic NH3 source. The conditions required for NH3 to accumulate in the atmosphere are, however, stringent. NH3's high water solubility and high bio-useability likely prevent NH3 from accumulating in the atmosphere to detectable levels unless life is a net source of NH3 and produces enough NH3 to saturate the surface sinks. Only then can NH3 accumulate in the atmosphere with a reasonable surface production flux. For the highly favorable planetary scenario of terrestrial planets with H2-dominated atmospheres orbiting M dwarf stars (M5V), we find a minimum of about 5 ppm column-averaged mixing ratio is needed for NH3 to be detectable with JWST, considering a 10 ppm JWST systematic noise floor. When the surface is saturated with NH3 (i.e., there are no NH3-removal reactions on the surface), the required biological surface flux to reach 5 ppm is on the order of 10^10 molecules cm-2 s-1, comparable to the terrestrial biological production of CH4. However, when the surface is unsaturated with NH3, due to additional sinks present on the surface, life would have to produce NH3 at surface flux levels on the order of 10^15 molecules cm-2 s-1 (approx. 4.5x10^6 Tg year-1). This value is roughly 20,000 times greater than the biological production of NH3 on Earth and about 10,000 times greater than Earth's CH4 biological production. Volatile amines have similar solubilities and reactivities to NH3 and hence share NH3's weaknesses and strengths as a biosignature. Finally, to establish NH3 as a biosignature gas, we must rule out mini-Neptunes with deep atmospheres, where temperatures and pressures are high enough for NH3's atmospheric production.