The search for life beyond our solar system has focused largely on the detection of an ever-increasing number of exoplanets, determinations of whether the planets are in a habitable zone, and what the atmospheres of those planets might look like. It is a sign of how far the field has progressed that scientists are now turning with renewed energy to the question of what might, and what might not, constitute a sign that a planet actually harbors life.
The field of “remote biosignatures” is still in its early stages, but a NASA-sponsored workshop underway in Seattle has brought together dozens of researchers from diverse fields to dig aggressively into the science and ultimately convey its conclusions back to the exoplanet community and then to the agency.
While a similar NASA-sponsored biosignatures workshop put together a report in 2002, much has changed since then in terms of understanding the substantial complexities and possibilities of the endeavor. There is also a new sense of urgency based on the observing capabilities of some of the space and ground telescopes scheduled to begin operations in the next decade, and the related need to know with greater specificity what to look for.
“The astrobiology community has been thinking a lot more about what it means to be a biosignature,” said Shawn Domogal-Goldman of the Goddard Space Flight Center, one of the conveners of the meeting. Some of the reason why is to give advice to those scientists and engineers putting together space telescope missions, but some is the pressing need to maintain scientific rigor for the good of one of humankind’s greatest challenges.
“We don’t want to spend 20 years of our lives and billions in taxpayer money working for a mission to find evidence of life, and learn too late that our colleagues don’t accept our conclusions,” he told me. “So we’re bringing them all together now so we can all learn from each other about what would be, and what would not be, a real biosignature.”
… Read more