How to Expand the Search For Aliens Beyond Earthlike Worlds


Image: NASA
Casting a wide search for ET won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it will surely be transformative.

By Ramin Skibba | MOTHERBOARD

From blob-like jellyfish to rock-like lichens, our planet teems with such diversity of life that it is difficult to recognise some organisms as even being alive. That complexity hints at the challenge of searching for life as we don’t know it—the alien biology that might have taken hold on other planets, where conditions could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. „The Universe is a really big place. Chances are, if we can imagine it, it’s probably out there on a planet somewhere,“ said Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. „The question is, will we be able to find it?“

For decades, astronomers have come at that question by confining their search to organisms broadly similar to the ones here. In 1976, NASA’s Viking landers examined soil samples on Mars, and tried to animate them using the kind of organic nutrients that Earth microbes like, with inconclusive results. Later this year, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will begin scopingout methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be produced by Earth-like bacterial life. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will likewise scan for carbon-based compounds from possible past or present Mars organisms.

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