In the search for alien life, we have a difficult dilemma — something that may or may not have happened, depending on how we look at it. Human life, in the least, is here and it’s here to stay. For organic life, however, the future is uncertain.
We’ve been looking for alien life for years now, in the hope that the probability of extraterrestrial microbes erupting on a distant planet, reproducing and eventually ending up here in Earth’s neighborhood, will lead us to discover alien life here on Earth.
Without alien microbes, how would we get evidence of life from our own solar system?
This is why NASA has called for an “evolutionary paradigm shift.” But how exactly will that happen?
In a recent article published in National Geographic’s June 2020 edition, Rob Fyfe, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, laid out his vision. “New approaches are needed in a sense to enable us to make the best possible possible case for evolution and life among the hypothetical extremophiles on Earth,” he explained.
And this is what he believes will happen:
Biological evolution requires profound changes over long timescales — above a generation or two — before it’s possible to observe more obvious changes in humans’ appearances, immune systems, and fitness. A similar process is currently taking place on the Martian atmosphere and in the abundances of the various elements present in the mantle, mantle ocean, and lower layers of the crust. Advances in crystallography and other technologies now allow us to do more analysis of the materials in the Martian atmosphere than ever before. For example, we can see that the oldest rocks in the Mars mantle are composed of silica, the same mineral that is in oceans on Earth. This type of crystallographic data opens the door to potentially habitable environments – deep, under-permeable shells of water and ice, inside which microbial life is likely to thrive. Eventually, we hope, we’ll be able to discover that some of these resources actually exist on Mars, and perhaps we can breathe life back into humanity.
Here is how Fyfe believes that this evolutionary paradigm shift will work: We already have all the technology we need to discover the coolest, harshest, coldest life form we can find. “With these tools, we should now be able to get an idea of the breadth of the biophysical diversity on Earth and, ultimately, life itself,” he said.
And then we can move forward:
By understanding more about the ability of Earth and Mars to support the existence of life, we should be better able to predict what environments –beyond our local neighborhood –are most likely to serve as resources for alien microbial communities, and to design the robotic approaches to search for alien life that will lead to discovering these habitable environments.
If life exists in the atmospheres of other planets, we should also be able to figure out how to make the most of the resource they provide. But without alien microbes, how would we get evidence of life from our own solar system?
Fyfe says that all of the tools we’ve built — life detection, laser spectroscopy, and other techniques — are of limited use without some well-established source of life. “The story of life on Earth has never been much about looking for extraterrestrial microbes,” he said. “What we really want to do is get a better sense of how the chemistry we have on Earth is changing, how the amount of ice and water is getting smaller and smaller, and what’s happening within these deep spaces.”
And once we’ve figured out a way to detect life in the atmospheres of other planets, what can we do with that evidence? Eventually, NASA might be able to resurrect the idea of astrobiology, which has been and hopefully will be a major focus of the agency — but we can’t just let that possibility float away.
“There’s an ‘old’ discipline that tries to draw out definitions of biological life and other properties, and I think now is the right time to think about what we can do in this new era of evolution,” he added.
NASA has said that it’s open to the new concept. So next time you see some astronomers theorizing about what life on other planets might look like, remember, Fyfe says, that it’s now time to ask “How will we find out?”
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