NASA has revealed a series of new projects that could finally help prove the existence of alien life.
It is bringing together a group of leading researchers in astronomy, biology and geology as part of the new project to ‘take stock of our knowledge in the search for life on distant planets and to lay the groundwork for moving the related sciences forward.’
Called the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS, it hopes to answer the questions of what planets could host life – and what that life could look like.
Is this what life on another planet could look like? NASA is bringing together a group of leading researchers in astronomy, biology and geology as part of the new project to ‘take stock of our knowledge in the search for life on distant planets and to lay the groundwork for moving the related sciences forward.’ Pictured, a NASA artist’s conception of what life could look like on the surface of a distant planet.
WHAT COULD ALIEN LIFE LOOK LIKE?
Many of the promising planets researchers have found are around cooler stars, which emit light in the infrared spectrum, rather than our sun’s high emissions of visible-light.
NASA says this could mean life looks very different – ‘We have to be open to the possibility that life may arise in many contexts in a galaxy with so many diverse worlds — perhaps with purple-colored life instead of the familiar green-dominated life forms on Earth, for example.
‘That’s why we are considering a broad range of biosignatures.’
‘We’re moving from theorizing about life elsewhere in our galaxy to a robust science that will eventually give us the answer we seek to that profound question: Are we alone?’ said Martin Still, NASA exoplanet scientist at Headquarters, Washington.
In a set of five review papers published last week in the scientific journal Astrobiology, NExSS scientists revealed thei rfirst project, taking an inventory of the most promising signs of life, called biosignatures.
They considered how to interpret the presence of biosignatures, should we detect them on distant worlds.
A primary concern is ensuring the science is strong enough to distinguish a living world from a barren planet masquerading as one.
Through their work with NExSS, scientists aim to identify the instruments needed to detect potential life for future NASA flagship missions.
The detection of atmospheric signatures of a few potentially habitable planets may possibly come before 2030, although whether the planets are truly habitable or have life will require more in-depth study.
ARE WE LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE WRONG PLACES?
Researchers on the lookout for alien worlds should keep their eyes peeled for some of the ‘core ingredients’ for life on Earth, including nutrients like phosphorous, say Harvard scientists.
Missions to potential alien planets worth billions may have all been in vain if the new study is to be believed.
Scientists claim our search for ET has focussed too heavily on worlds that show signs of water – a tactic that may be hampering efforts to uncover whether we are alone in the universe.
Instead, missions to alien worlds should hunt for some of the ‘core ingredients’ for life on Earth, including nutrients like phosphorous, computer models show.
Scientists said alien-hunting probes currently en route to distant worlds will struggle to find life because these ‘bioessential’ elements likely only exist in hard-to-reach patches of the subsurface oceans the craft are tasked to explore.
Since we won’t be able to visit distant planets and collect samples anytime soon, the light that a telescope observes will be all we have in the search for life outside our solar system.
Telescopes can examine the light reflecting off a distant world to show us the kinds of gases in the atmosphere and their ‘seasonal’ variations, as well as colors like green that could indicate life.
These kinds of biosignatures can all be seen on our fertile Earth from space, but the new worlds we examine will differ significantly.
For example, many of the promising planets we have found are around cooler stars, which emit light in the infrared spectrum, rather than our sun’s high emissions of visible-light.
‘What does a living planet look like?’ said Mary Parenteau, an astrobiologist and microbiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and a co-author.
‘We have to be open to the possibility that life may arise in many contexts in a galaxy with so many diverse worlds — perhaps with purple-colored life instead of the familiar green-dominated life forms on Earth, for example.
‘That’s why we are considering a broad range of biosignatures.’
ARE THESE THE TELESCOPES THAT WILL SPOT ALIEN LIFE?
The assessment comes as a new generation of space and ground-based telescopes are in development.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will characterize the atmospheres of some of the first small, rocky planets.
Other observatories— such as the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope, both in Chile— are planning to carry sophisticated instruments capable of detecting the first biosignatures on faraway worlds.
Work has begun on a giant telescope, 10 times sharper than Hubble, that could help astronomers find alien life on distant planets. Named the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), it is scheduled to be completed by 2024.
The scientists assert that oxygen — the gas produced by photosynthetic organisms on Earth — remains the most promising biosignature of life elsewhere, but it is not foolproof.
Abiotic processes on a planet could also generate oxygen.
Conversely, a planet lacking detectable levels of oxygen could still be alive — which was exactly the case of Earth before the global accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere.
‘On early Earth, we wouldn’t be able to see oxygen, despite abundant life,’ said Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of one of the papers.
‘Oxygen teaches us that seeing, or not seeing, a single biosignature is insufficient evidence for or against life — overall context matters.’
Rather than measuring a single characteristic, the NExSS scientists argue that we should be looking at a suite of traits.
A planet must show itself capable of supporting life through its features, and those of its parent star.
The NExSS scientists will create a framework that can quantify how likely it is that a planet has life, based on all the available evidence.
With the observation of many planets, scientists may begin to more broadly classify the ‘living worlds’ that show common characteristics of life, versus the ‘non-living worlds.’
‘We won’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to finding life elsewhere,’ said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and a co-author. ‘What we will have is a high level of confidence that a planet appears alive for reasons that can only be explained by the presence of life.’