NASA Missions Should Look for Extraterrestrial Life

From now on, the search for extraterrestrial life should be part of all NASA missions.

That is the proposal of a report ordered by the Congress of the United States, signed by a committee of 17 researchers and presented on October 10 by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). The document highlights the importance of including astrobiology in each and every one of NASA’s future space missions. Astrobiology seeks to find out how life on Earth originated and how it could evolve, also, in other places in the Universe. The objective should also be considered from the beginning and the conceptualization of each new space mission, and included in “the planning and development of operations”.

The reason that such a proposal comes precisely now is simple: in recent years, explain the authors, astrophysicists have detected thousands of exoplanets, while biologists are acquiring a multitude of new knowledge about the complexity and diversity of life on earth. These findings reinforce the possibility that life may exist in other worlds and, therefore, according to the report, all space exploration missions should incorporate technology to find traces of foreign organisms.

According to Alan Boss, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington and co-author of the report, “our current vision of the universe is more crowded than ever with planets.” In fact, more than 4,000 exoplanets have already been confirmed by Science, and the data collected so far can estimate that six out of ten stars could host planets similar to Earth. “The large number of known exoplanets,” adds Boss, “offers interesting opportunities to find biofirms, chemical markers that indicate the presence of life.”

In a statement made public on October 10, the researchers state that “astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe, is a field that changes rapidly, especially in the years since the publication of NASA’s Astrobiology Strategy in 2015. Recent scientific advances in the field now provide many opportunities to strengthen the role of astrobiology in NASA missions and increase collaboration with other scientific fields and organizations. The report considers that these changes require an updated scientific strategy ».

According to the signatories, astrobiology represents a range of scientific disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and planetary sciences that, both individually and as a whole, constitute areas of expertise that will help to clarify the enigma of how life could arise and evolve in other worlds other than Earth.

Therefore, scientists recommend that NASA accelerate the development of technologies to detect microscopic organisms, and criticize the fact that at present there is “not a single instrument ready for flight” that can travel to a distant world and measure the composition of its elements, minerals and organic matter.

The report also suggests that direct imaging systems that suppress starlight should be used outside of our solar system, to improve the detection of possible biofirms in the planets orbiting those stars. NASA should also plan more missions in order to search under the surface of exoplanets (rocky, frozen or oceanic worlds) to find underground extraterrestrial life.

However, the researchers write, efforts to find our extraterrestrial neighbors, either in our own solar system or light years away, will need more than just technology. It will be necessary, in effect, to foster collaboration and cooperation with international space agencies, private individuals and philanthropic institutions. This collaboration will be as important for NASA as developing and implementing new technological resources, and such associations “have the potential to move very quickly in the search for life”.