Oct. 10, 2018

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NASA Should Expand the Search for Life in the Universe and Make Astrobiology an Integral Part of its Missions, Says New Report

WASHINGTON – To advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should support research on a broader range of biosignatures and environments, and incorporate the field of astrobiology into all stages of future exploratory missions, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, is a rapidly changing field, especially in the years since the publication of NASA’s Astrobiology Strategy 2015.  Recent scientific advances in the field now provide many opportunities to strengthen the role of astrobiology in NASA missions and to increase collaboration with other scientific fields and organizations. The report finds that these changes necessitate an updated science strategy for astrobiology.

The committee that authored the report found that the lines of evidence we use to look for current and past life on Earth and beyond, called biosignatures, needs expansion. An updated, more sophisticated catalog and framework will be important to 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. The latter will be enabled by investigating novel “agnostic” biosignatures – signs of life that are not tied to a particular metabolism or molecular “blueprint,” or other characteristics of life as we currently know it. 

A comprehensive framework could also aid in distinguishing between biosignatures and abiotic (non-living) phenomena, and improve understanding of the potential for biosignatures to be preserved (or not) over long planetary time-scales. The report highlights the need to include in situ detection of energy-starved or otherwise sparsely distributed life such as chemolithotrophic or rock-eating life. In particular, the report found that NASA should focus on research and exploration of possible life below the surface of a planet in light of recent advances that have demonstrated the breadth and diversity of life below Earth’s surface, the nature of fluids beneath the surface of Mars, and the likelihood of life-sustaining geological processes in planets and moons with subsurface oceans. A renewed focus on how to seek signs of subsurface life will inform astrobiology investigations of other rocky planets or moons, ocean or icy worlds, and beyond to exoplanets.

The report emphasizes the need for NASA to ramp up efforts in developing mission-ready life detection technologies to advance the search for life. For studies of life on planets outside of this solar system, the agency should implement technologies in near-term ground- and space-based direct imaging missions that can suppress the light from stars. The specialized 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 organizations outside of NASA, the report says.

So far, planning, implementation, and operations of planetary exploration missions with astrobiological objectives have tended to be more strongly defined by geological perspectives than by astrobiology-focused strategies.  The committee recommended the integration of astrobiology into all mission stages, from inception to development and operations. Collaboration with private, philanthropic, and international organizations, especially international space agencies, is also crucial to achieving the objectives of searching for life in the universe.

The committee also pointed out that adopting an interdisciplinary approach to astrobiology would produce a more complete picture of life on Earth as well as other planets. Integrating the physical, chemical, biological, geologic, planetary, and astrophysical sciences into the study of astrobiology will better show the relationship between life and its environment and how each changes, incorporating a new, dynamic view of habitability that includes consideration of multiple parameters. NASA should continue to actively seek new mechanisms to reduce the barriers to these potential collaborations, the report says.

The study was sponsored by NASA.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://nationalacademies.org. A committee roster follows.

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Copies of An Astrobiology Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe are available at www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313  or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE

Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Space Studies Board

Committee on the Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe

Barbara Sherwood Lollar (chair)
University Professor
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Toronto
Toronto

Sushil K. Atreya
Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, and
Director
Planetary Science Laboratory
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Alan P. Boss
Research Staff Member
Department of Terrestrial Magnetism
Carnegie Institution for Science
Washington, D.C.

Paul G. Falkowski1
Distinguished Professor and Bennett L. Smith Chair in Business and Natural Resources
Departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Marine and Coastal Sciences
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, N.J.

Jack D. Farmer
Professor
Department of Geological Sciences
School of Earth and Space Exploration
Arizona State University
Tempe

Olivier Guyon
Associate Astronomer, and
Associate Professor of Optical Sciences
Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory
University of Arizona
Tucson

Gerald F. Joyce1,2
Professor
Jack H. Skirball Center for Chemical Biology and Proteomics
Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and
Director
Genomics Institute
Novartis Research Foundation
La Jolla, Calif.

James F. Kasting1
Evan Pugh Professor
Department of Geosciences
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park

Victoria S. Meadows
Professor
Department of Astronomy, and
Director
Astrobiology Program
University of Washington
Seattle

Philip M. Neches3
Founder
Teradata Corp.
Summit, N.J.

Carl B. Pilcher
Research Scientist
Blue Marble Space Institute of Science
Sebastopol, Calif.

Nilton O. Renno
Professor
Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Karyn L. Rogers
Assistant Professor
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, N.Y.

Britney E. Schmidt
Assistant Professor
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta

Roger E. Summons
Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology
Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

Frances Westall
Research Scientist, and
Director
Exobiology Group
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Orleans, France

Shelley A. Wright
Associate Professor
Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences
University of California
San Diego

STAFF

David H. Smith
Staff Officer

Sarah C. Brothers
Staff Officer

Anesia Wilks
Program Assistant

1Member, National Academy of Sciences
2Member, National Academy of Medicine
3Member, National Academy of Engineering