When the James Webb Space Telescope aims at exoplanet atmospheres, it’ll use spectroscopy to identify chemical elements. One of the things it’s looking for is methane, a chemical compound that can indicate the presence of life.
Methane is a compelling biosignature. Finding a large amount of methane in an exoplanet’s atmosphere might be our most reliable indication that life’s at work there. There are abiotic sources of methane, but for the most part, methane comes from life.
But to understand methane as a potential biosignature, we need to understand it in a planetary context. A new research letter aims to do that.
We’re still in the early days of searching for life elsewhere. The Perseverance rover is on its way to a paleo-delta on Mars to look for fossilized signs of ancient bacterial life. SETI’s been watching the sky with radio dishes, listening for signals from distant worlds. Our telescopes are beginning to scan the atmospheres of distant exoplanets for biosignatures.
Soon we’ll take another step forward in the search when new, powerful telescopes begin to search not just for life but for other civilizations.
The field of extrasolar planet studies is undergoing a seismic shift. To date, 4,940 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,711 planetary systems, with another 8,709 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many planets available for study and improvements in telescope sensitivity and data analysis, the focus is transitioning from discovery to characterization. Instead of simply looking for more planets, astrobiologists will examine “potentially-habitable” worlds for potential “biosignatures.”
This refers to the chemical signatures associated with life and biological processes, one of the most important of which is water. As the only known solvent that life (as we know it) cannot exist, water is considered the divining rod for finding life. In a recent study, astrophysicists Dang Pham and Lisa Kaltenegger explain how future surveys (when combined with machine learning) could discern the presence of water, snow, and clouds on distant exoplanets.
For almost sixty years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next fifteen years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.
Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this Challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.
There’s nothing easy about searching for evidence of life on Mars. Not only do we somehow have to land a rover there, which is extraordinarily difficult. But the rover needs the right instruments, and it has to search in the right location. Right now, the Perseverance lander has checked those boxes as it pursues its mission in Jezero Crater.
But there’s another problem: there are structures that look like fossils but aren’t. Many natural chemical processes produce structures that mimic biological ones. How can we tell them apart? How can we prepare for these false positives?
The search for Martian life has been ongoing for decades. Various landers and rovers have searched for biosignatures or other hints that life existed either currently or in the past on the Red Planet. But so far, results have been inconclusive. That might be about to change, though, with a slew of missions planned to collect even more samples for testing. Mars itself isn’t the only place they are looking, though. Some scientists think the best place to find evidence of life is one of Mars’ moons.
In the coming decade, NASA and the ESA will be sending two dedicated missions that will explore Jupiter’s moon Europa. These missions are known as the Europa Clipper and the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) missions, which will fulfill a dream that has been decades in the making – searching for possible evidence of life inside Europa. Since the 1970s, astronomers have theorized that this satellite contains a warm-water ocean that could support life.
The case for life in Europa has only been bolstered thanks to multiple flybys and observation campaigns that have been mounted since. According to new research led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the best way to look for potential signs of life (aka. biosignatures) would be to analyze small impact craters on Europa’s surface. These patches of exposed subsurface ice could point the way towards life that might exist deeper in the moon’s interior.
In 1960, the first survey dedicated to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was mounted at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. This was Project Ozma, which was the brainchild of famed astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake (for whom the Drake Equation is named). Since then, the collective efforts to find evidence of life beyond Earth have coalesced to create a new field of study known as astrobiology.
The search for extraterrestrial life has been the subject of renewed interest thanks to the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered in recent years. Unfortunately, our efforts are still heavily constrained by our limited frame of reference. However, a new tool developed by a team of researchers from the University of Glasgow and Arizona State University (ASU) could point the way towards life in all of its forms!
Planning ahead is something astronomy and space exploration excels at. Decadal surveys and years of engineering effort for missions give the field a much longer time horizon than many others. In the near future, scientists know there will be plenty of opportunities to search for biosignatures everywhere from nearby ocean worlds (i.e. Titan) to far away potentially habitable exoplanets. But it’s not clear what those biosignatures would look like. After all, currently there is only Earth’s biosphere to study, and it would be unfortunate to miss hints of another just because it didn’t look like those found on Earth. Now a team led by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) have come up with a framework that could help scientists look for biosignatures that might be completely different from those found on Earth.
Ever since it landed in the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover has been prepping its scientific instruments to begin searching for signs of past life on the Red Planet. These include spectrometers that will scan Martian rocks for organics and minerals that form in the presence of water and a caching system that will store samples of Martian soil and rock for retrieval by a future mission.
These telltale indicators could be signs of past life, which would most likely take the form of fossilized microbes. In the near future, a similar instrument could be used to search for present-day extraterrestrial life. It’s known as the Wireline Analysis Tool for the Subsurface Observation of Northern ice sheets (WATSON), and could be used to find evidence of life inside “ocean worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.