Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. It is, as you might imagine, a staggeringly broad field. Astrobiologists scour our solar system for habitable environments and search for habitable planets outside our Solar System.
Astrobiologists also do some of their best work right here on Earth, researching the origins and early evolution of life on our planet. In doing so, they study the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.
Origins of Astrobiology
The search for life in the universe has been ongoing since the beginning of the space program under the heading of “exobiology.” While NASA first established its Exobiology Program in 1960, this program remains an element of the current Astrobiology Program that was established in 1996.
There are four elements to NASA’s Astrobiology Program:
- Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets
- Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development
- Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology
- The Astrobiology Institute (formed in 1998).
The Purpose of the NASA Astrobiology Program
The goal of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute involves finding answers to the following three questions:
- How does life begin and evolve?
- Is there life beyond Earth and, if so, how can we detect it?
- What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe?
NASA has designed missions specifically to seek signs of extraterrestrial life. The Viking program and Beagle 2 probes, directed at Mars, could both be considered failures since the former was inconclusive and the latter is assumed to have crashed. Astrobiologists also make use of data produced by other projects including the Hubble Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes around the world.
A secondary goal of the Astrobiology Program is to find planets where, even if no life exists, it can be sustained. It seeks regions with liquid water, conditions favorable for the assembly of complex organic molecules and energy sources to sustain metabolism.
NASA has turned to the scientific community at large for help in outlining multiple pathways for research and exploration. A document entitled the “Astrobiology Roadmap” will serve as a guide for astrobiology programs in the future.
The ongoing development of the roadmap embodies the contributions of diverse scientists and technologists, including NASA employees, academic scientists whose research is partially funded by NASA grants and many members of the broader community who have no formal association with NASA.
What They Have Found
So far, NASA has found no direct evidence of extraterrestrial life ever existing. In one case, Meteorites recovered from Antarctica and thought to have come from Mars offer disputed evidence of microfossils. However, active exploration has yielded no concrete evidence of extraterrestrial life.
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As long as men have roamed the Earth, we have been fascinated by the stars above us. As technology has advanced, we’ve been able to further explore our universe, which has led many on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).
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