A new development of a new kind of extraterrestrial life detection system has attracted NASA’s attention so much that the space organization has awarded nearly USD seven million to an effort aiming at it. This invention could be used in Mars, scientists say.
The Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures will have the power to perform a new class of life detection approaches from the subsurface of Mars to the farthest of our solar system. The interdisciplinary project will be used on planetary missions.
“Time and again, we have been bowled over by the indescribable foreignness of other worlds,” said Sarah Stewart Johnson from Georgetown University in the US.
“Yet the search for extraterrestrial life often defaults to assumptions that arise from experiences with life detection on Earth,” said Johnson, the project’s principal investigator.
The NASA’s aim is to explicitly throw out the notion that life out in space will be like life here on earth, at home. The Astrobiology Program has awarded the USD seven million grant to serve this very purpose.
“Detecting life in an agnostic fashion means not using characteristics particular to Earth life,” said deputy principal investigator Heather Graham of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Graham added that the team may consider states of disequilibrium with the surrounding environment, such as of conspicuous chemical complexity or unexpected accumulations of chemical elements.
The aim is to also look for patterns of energy transfer in the hope that
they will also look for patterns of energy transfer in the hope that such peculiarity could signal the researchers about the existence of life.
The project lies on indentifying indicators that are not biased towards the particular type of biochemistry found on Earth. The life detection methods must also be suitable for eventual implementation on flight missions.
“Our goal is to go beyond what we currently understand and devise ways to find forms of life we can scarcely imagine,” Johnson said.
The Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures will try exploring different ways to think about the discovery of life in terms of probabilities and thresholds, as opposed to seeking a simple “yes” or “no” as to whether life has been discovered.
“When you are looking for extraterrestrial life, results may be messier than just ‘yes we found life’ or ‘no we didn’t,’” Johnson said.
“To do that, we’ll need to think less about whether life fits our preconceptions of what life is, and more about how to quantify the difference between what we see and what we might expect from an abiotic environment,” she said.
Researchers are optimistic that this project will support computational efforts to develop probabilistic and theoretical models, some of which will depend on advanced algorithmic and machine learning techniques.
It will also oversee the analysis of a wide array of organic and inorganic substrates, including abiotic extracts from meteorites, which will be used to develop and refine these tools and algorithms, they said.