A Landmark Scientific Panel Just Published a New Guide to Finding Life in the Universe

Thursday, 11 October 2018 - 12:58PM
Space
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Thursday, 11 October 2018 - 12:58PM
A Landmark Scientific Panel Just Published a New Guide to Finding Life in the Universe
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Astrobiology has always been at the fringes of NASA's science programs, and the last time it tried to break into the big-time with the establishment of an official SETI program, it was shut down after a year. Now, thanks to huge breakthroughs in the discovery of exoplanets and Sun-like stars, NASA is seeing a huge resurgence in interest when it comes to finding and studying life beyond Earth. With Congress pushing the agency to dig into the search for extraterrestrial life, a landmark panel of scientists from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has put together a new paper advising NASA on what its next steps should be.

The report provides a whole slew of new recommendations, but one of the most important is that the habitability of a planet is "not a yes or no question." Instead, the paper advises investigations into the concept of "dynamic habitability," which examines how both life and its environment change over time. In essence, what may have been habitable 100 million years ago may not be habitable now, and vice versa. Another major recommendation is the continuation of research into biosignatures, which are phenomena created by the presence of biological beings like microbes. To find life, the report says, we need to figure out what to look for, as well as how to identify false positives. Oxygen is a good example of this: the mass production of oxygen on Earth was mainly the result of living creatures on the surface, but other planets may end up with a lot of oxygen through processes that have nothing to do with life.

As for where the report expects to find life, the consensus is that we should focus on looking below the surfaces of planets, where organisms would be shielded from cosmic radiation. Recent research has shown that life is a lot more adaptable and hardy than we might have thought, too—according to the report: "...if bacterial life can exist in cold, hypersaline (~10 times saltier than the ocean) environments on Earth, salty brines beneath the surface of Mars might also harbor life. Likewise, given that organisms on Earth can thrive far from the Sun's rays in sediments beneath the ocean floor and in the deep subsurface of Earth's landmasses, we should prioritize subsurface environments when seeking out signs of life."

You can see the paper here, and read the highlight summary here.

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