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Astrobiology is the study of all aspects of life in the universe. It studies the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of that life. This is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses the search for habitable environments and habitable planets inside and out of our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of Earthbound life, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to environmental challenges throughout the universe. This filed makes use of physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and planetary science, just to name a few. NASA actually made the field legitimate when studies were done, while on the Moon, to detect life there.
Earth is the only known inhabited planet, but advancements in the astrobiology and observational astronomy combined with the discovery of large varieties of extremophiles(microbes that exist in extreme environments like volcanoes) have led to speculation that life may be thriving on other celestial bodies. There have been several missions specifically designed to search for life, these include the Viking program and Beagle 2. The Phoenix lander probed the Martian surface for past habitability as well as evidence of past or present microbial life. There are several planned missions to Mars to continue the search for evidence of life on the planet.
Astrobiologists have been consulted in the new studies that are concentrating on extrasolar planets like those in the Gliese system. Once information is accumulated about the habitable zones of a star, an astrobiologist can use that information to theorize on the possibility of life in that zone.
When looking for life on other planets, some assumptions are made to reduce the size of the task. One is to assume that the majority of life forms are based on carbon like they are here on Earth. While it is possible that non-carbon life exists, carbon is well known for the unusually wide variety of molecules that it can form. Next, is the assumption that water must be present, since it is a common molecule and provides an excellent environment for complicated carbon-based molecules to form. Some researchers think that water-ammonia mixtures are also suitable for carbon or noncarbon-based life. That opens more temperature ranges(more planets) for the possibility of life. The last assumption is the need for a star that is similar to our Sun to provide the right amount of light and temperature range for life.
Astrobiology is currently an emerging field of study, but it is an area of study the is already contributing great things to our understanding of the universe.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Astrobiology. Listen here, Episode 143: Astrobiology.