As scientific development opens up new avenues for the exploration of the cosmos, the search for alien life could receive a substantial boost over the next few decades.
And according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, astrobiology is key in looking for life out there, in the vastness of the universe.
In a new report published today in the National Academies Press, a panel of experts from the private, nonprofit institutions laid out a strategy for NASA's future exploration missions outlining the importance of astrobiology in the search for life in the universe.
The 196-page document highlights the advantages of astrobiology both in understanding what ignited the spark of life on Earth and in looking for life beyond the borders of our planet. At the same time, the paper details a suite of recommendations that NASA should take into consideration when planning its space missions during the following few decades.
As Quartz points out, the report was put together following the 2017 NASA Authorization Act. Among other requirements that shaped the future of U.S. space exploration, the bill also instructed NASA to work together with the National Academies and come up with a "strategy for astrobiology" that prioritizes "the search for life's origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe."
"If we're really going to achieve a goal as lofty as this, then outside-the-box thinking is really required," said Barbara Sherwood Lollar, chair of the committee that assembled the paper and an astrobiologist at the University of Toronto in Canada.
As she told Space, astrobiology is the "quintessential example" of a research field that requires creative thinking in order to advance. "It is an endless journey to continue to broaden our horizons."The newly devised strategy calls for the incorporation of astrobiology "into all stages of future exploratory missions" by expanding the study of terrestrial biosignatures — the scientific evidence of present or past life in the history of our planet.
Such an endeavor would "enhance our ability to detect both life that might be similar to terrestrial life, and potential life that differs from life as we know it," officials from the National Academies said in a statement.
The explanation for this is a simple one: in order to search for life in outer space, our scientists must first understand how life appeared on Earth. The results of the current sample return missions targeting carbon-rich asteroids, NASA's OSIRIS-REx and Japan's Hayabusa-2, are expected to provide new insight on the early solar system and the development of our planet, the Inquisitr previously reported.
Another important prerequisite in the quest for alien life is knowing where to look for it. The report particularly emphasizes the need to renew our efforts of seeking signs of subsurface life on the planets and moons in our solar system.
More to the point, the experts believe that studies of terrestrial lifeforms that evolved and adapted in ecosystems devoid of sunlight, such as deep underground or thousands of feet beneath the ocean, should give us a better idea of what to look for on other worlds.
In addition, the report calls upon the space agency to develop "mission-ready life detection technologies to advance the search for life," such as extremely powerful telescopes and new-generation instruments that can block out the light coming from other star systems, revealing potential hidden worlds lurking beneath their glare.
The new report provides a basis for two upcoming initiatives, namely a pair of decadal surveys designed to help NASA choose its following projects and missions. The surveys will also be carried out by the National Academies and aim to cover firstly astronomy and astrophysics, and secondly planetary sciences.