Search for ET: look harder, NASA told


Expert committee recommends making astrobiology a priority. Andrew Masterson reports.


NASA needs to up its search for "agnostic" biosignatures, an expert report recommends.

NASA needs to up its search for "agnostic" biosignatures, an expert report recommends.

Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

All future NASA missions should incorporate astrobiology from the get-go, and the organisation should expand the range of possible ET indicators it tries to detect, according to a major new report.

The report, sponsored by NASA, was prepared by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). It was written by a specially appointed committee of academics under the leadership of geologist Barbara Sherwood Lollar from Canada’s University of Toronto.

Other members include astrobiologist Victoria Meadows from the University of Washington, geoscientist James Kasting from Pennsylvania State University, and chemical biologist Gerald Joyce from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, all in the US.

The committee members recommend that current lines of evidence used to search for extra-terrestrial life – called biosignatures – be expanded. In particular, protocols need to be established to detect so-called “agnostic” biosignatures – evidence that may indicate the presence of lifeforms that do not share any molecular or metabolic similarities to those found on Earth.

The report also recommends improved frameworks to aid the distinction between living and non-living phenomena, and to improve understanding of how biosignatures may persist over long periods of time.

Special attention should be paid in planning future NASA missions to detecting possible sparsely distributed life – such as rock-eating microbes – and life that may exist beneath the surface of a planet.

In terms of engineering, the report recommends ramping up efforts to design mission-ready life detection technologies. The authors specify the development of instruments, for in-space and near-ground missions, capable of suppressing ambient starlight to better enable imaging of possible ET-friendly environments.

“The specialised measurements, equipment, and analysis required to take full advantage of space missions include some that exist outside of traditional space science fields, highlighting the need for interdisciplinary, non-traditional cooperation and collaboration with organisations outside of NASA,” the report says.

  1. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25252/an-astrobiology-strategy-for-the-search-for-life-in-the-universe
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