A new report says that NASA should rethink its search for alien life, and hunt not just for life as we know it – but life as we don’t know it, too.
Released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the report – mandated by Congress – focused on astrobiology, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe. It follows a similar one last month on the hunt for life on exoplanets.
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. And the report said that the way we look for life, known as biosignatures, needed updating.
“An updated, more sophisticated catalog and framework will be important to enhance our ability to detect both life that might be similar to terrestrial life, and potential life that differs from life as we know it,” a statement from the National Academies read.
“The latter will be enabled by investigating novel ‘agnostic’ biosignatures – signs of life that are not tied to a particular metabolism or molecular ‘blueprint,’ or other characteristics of life as we currently know it."
They said that all upcoming exploration missions planned by NASA should focus more on the search for life. This should not just mean looking at interesting geological features as is done currently, but more directly focusing on astrobiology.
This includes looking for life in all places, including in subsurface locations in our own Solar System. The discoveries on Earth that life can exist in a variety of locales suggests it might be more resilient than we thought in the universe.
And the report also said that NASA should “ramp up efforts” to develop technologies to search for life. This includes telescopes that can directly image potentially habitable worlds in other solar systems, perhaps make use of starshades to block out the light of their suns.
The report also calls for the return of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) to NASA funding, something that hasn’t been done by NASA since 1990. The agency has recently been making moves in this direction, including considering the hunt for technosignatures elsewhere in the universe.
Most of all, the report dictates that the time to search for life is now. We have the means to do it, and the question of whether we are alone is one of the most important of our time. So why not do everything we can to find out?
“Are we alone in the universe?” asked the report. “Sages and scientists, philosophers and poets have posed variants of this question since time immemorial. Today, we are formulating research programs that may someday provide an answer.”