Is There Life In Outer Space? Will We Recognize It?

Would we even be able to recognize signs of life in outer space? NASA recently published an interesting look at the idea.

A group of leading researchers in astronomy, biology and geology have come together under NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS, 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.

“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 took 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.

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.

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.

(Via Will We Know Life When We See It? NASA-led Group Takes Stock of the Science)

Science fiction writers have long imagined the abstract possibility of detecting life itself. For example, Frank Herbert wrote about a Life Detector in his 1958 story Cease Fire.

Golden Age great Eric Frank Russell wrote about the notion that a living being could actually sense life; see poldek from his 1937 story The Saga of Pelican West.

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