NASA-Backed Project Lays Out the Science of Detecting Alien Life

NASA-Backed Project Lays Out the Science of Detecting Alien Life

There are still many unanswered questions about the existence of extraterrestrial life. Maybe the universe is teeming with intelligent beings, or there might just be some pond scum on some out-of-the-way moon. It’s even possible there is no other life. An international team of scientists has laid the groundwork for scanning the skies for life. With the support of NASA, the researchers have simultaneously published six studies that explain how we will search exoplanets for signs of life using current and near-future technologies.

All six studies are part of the Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS) program. It’s all backed by NASA, but includes teams from all over the world, tracing back to a brainstorming session held in Seattle in 2016. After two years of work, teams from the University of Washington, the University of California-Riverside, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and others have published their research.

This collection of studies outlines what we know about detecting life in another solar system, as well as how we can go about it. The overarching theme of the individual studies is that scientists of multiple disciplines will need to work together to find evidence of life. The first paper, from NASA’s Goddard Institute, details the best signal types to use for detecting life. It calls out atmospheric gases like oxygen and methane in particular. Light reflected by life could also be a useful signal — for example, the color of plant life across a planet’s temperate zone. Another paper from the University of California-Riverside explores what we know about life on Earth can tell us about the signals we might detect on other planets.

A study from the University of Washington discusses how to evaluate potential biosignatures detected on exoplanets. For example, how confident can we be that a planet supports life when we detect certain chemicals. It assigns a scale of how likely a planet is to host life, ranging from “very likely” at 90 percent or more down to “very unlikely” at less than 10 percent. Dovetailing with that is a paper from the University of Washington that talks about how we might evaluate false positives and negatives in the data.

NASA-Backed Project Lays Out the Science of Detecting Alien Life

Those studies all work on answering the “what,” but the last two answer the “how.” One study covers how we could use current instruments as well as upcoming telescopes like the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope to look for life. The latter should be able to gather data on small rocky planets like Earth, which are believed to be more hospitable. The other study explores the future work needed to analyze and study potential biosignatures.

This glut of new research shows that NExSS is becoming a more focused endeavor. It’s not about brainstorming sessions and speculation. There’s real science to do, and the teams agree we could detect our first alien biosphere by 2030.

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