NASA project could help search for extraterrestrial life

A new project headed by NASA could help astronomers get a better picture of what to search for when looking for extraterrestrial life.
By Joseph Scalise | Feb 23, 2019
A new NASA-headed project known as the Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS) may help scientists better detect life on distant planets, according to six new papers published in the journal Astrobiology.

There are currently over 3,500 exoplanets known to science. However, researchers are not quite sure how to find signs of life on those worlds.

To fix that, the team behind the new study outlined different ways researchers could find extraterrestrial "biosignatures" with modern technology, as well the best way to sort through that data.

The scientists believe the new method could help detect distant biosignatures by the year 2030.

This new research comes from two years of work that spans various universities and institutions across the world. The idea behind it is to gather a fully comprehensive overview of what humans know about life and then use that information to search for it throughout the cosmos.

However, that is not an easy task.

"For life to be detectable on a distant world it needs to strongly modify its planet in a way that we can detect," explained one of the study-authors Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington, according to Gizmodo. "But for us to correctly recognize life's impact, we also need to understand the planet and starthat environmental context is key."

In one of the papers, scientists concluded that they should look for both atmospheric gases that are produced by life and any light reflected by life. In another, researchers discussed any potential false positives or negatives that might arise during a search.

The other papers detail what scientists understand about life on Earth, a framework to evaluate biosignatures on other planets, and a full evaluation of potential life-carrying worlds, as well as future ones.

Those aspects are all important, and the better they are understood the closer scientists will come to figuring out if life does exist in space.

"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 author of one of the studies Martin Still, an exoplanet scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington, according to Phys.org.

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