Putting Together a Community Strategy To Search for Extraterrestrial Life

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I regret that the formatting of this column was askew earlier; I hope it didn’t make reading too difficult.  But now those problems are fixed.

The scientific search underway for life beyond Earth requires input from many disciplines and fields. Strategies forward have to hear and take in what scientists in those many fields have to say. (NASA)

Behind the front page space science discoveries that tell us about the intricacies and wonders of our world are generally years of technical and intellectual development, years of planning and refining, years of problem-defining and problem-solving.  And before all this, there also years of brainstorming, analysis and strategizing about which science goals should have the highest priorities and which might be most attainable.

That latter process is underway now in regarding the search for life in the solar system and beyond, with numerous teams of scientists tackling specific areas of interest and concern and turning their group discussions into white papers.  In this case, the white papers will then go on to the National Academy of Sciences for a blue-ribbon panel review and ultimately recommendations on which subjects are exciting and mature enough for inclusion in a decadal survey and possible funding.

This is a generally little-known part of the process that results in discoveries, but scientists certainly understand how they are essential.  That’s why hundreds of scientists contribute their ideas and time — often unpaid — to help put together these foundational documents.

With its call for extraterrestrial habitability white papers, the NAS got more than 20 diverse and often deeply thought out offerings.  The papers will be studied now by an ad hoc, blue ribbon committee of scientists selected by the NAS, which will have the first of two public meetings in Irvine, Calif. on Jan. 16-18.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a leader of many NASA study projects and a astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Fight Center. (NASA)

Then their recommendations go up further to the decadal survey teams that will set formal NASA priorities for the field of astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science.  This community-based process that has worked well for many scientific disciplines since they began in the late 1950s.

I’m particularly familiar with two of these white paper processes — one produced at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo and the other with NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS.)  What they have to say is most interesting.

This is what Shawn Domagal-Goldman, an astrobiologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, had to say about their effort, which began 16 months ago with a workshop in Seattle:

Chaitanya Giri, a research scientist and the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo. (Nerissa Escanlar)

“This is an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ problem, and we held a workshop to start drawing a wide variety of scientists to the problem. Once we did, the group gave itself an ambitious goal – to quantify an assessment of whether or not an exoplanet has life, based on remote observations of that world.

“Doing that will take years of collaboration of scientists like the ones at the meeting, from diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences.”

Chaitanya Giri, a research scientist at ELSI with a background in organic planetary chemistry and organic cosmochemistry, said that his work on the European Rosetta mission to a comet convinced him that it is essential to “develop technological capacities to explore habitable niches on various planetary bodies and find unambiguous signatures of life, if present.”  There is some debate about the organic molecules — the chemical building blocks of life — identified by Rosetta.

“Over the years there have been scattered attempts at building such instruments, but a coherent collaborative network was missing,” Giri said. “This necessity inspired me to put on this workshop,” which led to the white paper.

We’ll discuss the conclusions of the papers, but first at little about the decadal surveys:

NASA Decada:

Here are the instruction from the NAS to potential white paper teams working on life beyond Earth projects and issues:

  • Identify promising key research goals in the field of the search for signs of life in which progress is likely in the next 20 years.
  • Identify key technological challenges in astrobiology as they pertain to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems.
  • Identify key scientific questions in astrobiology as they pertain to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems
  • Discuss scientific advances that can be addressed by U.S. and international space missions and relevant ground-based activities in operation or funded and in development
  • Discuss how to expand partnerships (interagency, international and public/private) in furthering the study of life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe

Quite a wide net, from specific issues to much broader ones.  But the teams submitting their papers are not expected to address all the issues, but only one or perhaps a related second.

The papers range from a SETI Institute call for a program to increase the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to address a range of astrobiology issues; to tempting possibilities offered by teams already in the running for future missions to Europa or Enceladus or elsewhere; to recommendations from the Planetary Science Institute about studying and searching for microbialites, living carbonate rock structures once common on Earth and possibly on Mars as well.

 

Proposed White Paper Subjects

Saturn’s moon Enceladus and plume of water vapor flowing out from its South Pole. (NASA)

 

Microbialites are fresh water versions of the organic and carbonate structures called stromatolites — which are among the oldest signs of life detected on Earth.

 

The white paper from ELSI focuses how to improve and discover technology that can detect potential life on other planets and moons. It calls for an increasingly international approach to that costly and specialized effort.

The paper from Giri et al begins with a disquieting conclusion that only “lately, scattered efforts are being undertaken towards the R&D of the novel and as-yet space unproven ‘life-detection’ technologies capable of obtaining unambiguous evidence of extraterrestrial life, even if it is significantly different from {Earth} life. As the suite of space-proven payloads improves in breadth and sensitivity, this is an apt time to examine the progress and future of life-detection technologies.”

The paper points to one discovery in particular as indicative of what the team feels is necessary — an ability to search for life in regions theoretically devoid of life and therefore requiring novel detection
techniques or probes.

“For example,” they write, “air sampling in Earth’s stratosphere with a novel scientific cryogenic payload has led to the isolation and identification of several new species of bacteria; this was an innovative technique analyzing a region of the atmosphere that was initially believed to be devoid of life.”

Other technologies they see as promising and needing further development are high-sensitivity fluorescence microscopy techniques that may be able to detect extraterrestrial organic compounds with catalytic activity surrounded by membranes, i.e., extraterrestrial cells.  In addition, they support on-going and NASA-funded work on genetic samplers that could go to Mars and — if present — actually identify nucleic acid-based life.

“With back-to-back missions under development and proposed by various space agencies to the potentially habitable Mars, Enceladus, Titan, and Europa, this is a right time for a detailed envisioning of the technologies needed for detection of life,” Giri said in an e-mail.

 

Yellowknife Bay on Mars, where the rover Curiosity first found conditions that were habitable to life. The rover subsequently found many more habitable spots, but no existing or fossil microbial life so far. (NASA)

The NExSS white paper on potentially detectable biosignatures from distant exoplanets– one of four submitted by the group– is an especially ambitious one.  The NASA-sponsored effort brought in many top scientists working in the field of biosignatures, and in the past year has already resulted in the publication or submission of five major science papers in addition to the white paper.

In keeping with the interdisciplinary mission of NExSS, the paper brought in people from many fields and ultimately advocates for a Bayesian approach to exoplanet life detection (named after 18th century statistician and philosopher Thomas Bayes. )

In most basic terms, the Bayes approach describes the probability of an event based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event. A simple example:  Runners A and B have competed four times, and runner A won three times.  So the probability of A winner is high, right?  But what if the two competed twice on a rainy track and each won one race.  If the forecast for the day of the next race is rain, the probability of who will be the winner would change.

This  approach not only embraces probability as an essential way forward, but it is especially useful in terms of weighing probabilities involving many measurements and fields.   Because the factors involved in finding a biosignature are so complex and potentially confounding, they argue, the field has to think in terms of the probability that a number of biosignatures together suggest the presence of life, rather than a 100 percent certain detection (although that may some day be possible.)

Nancy Kiang of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, explores (among other subjects) the possibility of using photosynthetic pigments as biosignatures on exoplanets.

Nancy Kiang of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, explores (among other subjects) the possibility of using photosynthetic pigments as biosignatures on exoplanets.

 

Both Domagal-Goldman and collaborator Nancy Kiang of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies are eager to adopt climate modeling and it’s ability to use known characteristics of divergent sub-fields to put together a big picture. (Those two, along with Niki Parenteau of NASA Ames Research Center led the NExSS effort.)

“For instance,” Kiang said, “the general circulation model (GCM) at GISS simulates the global circulation patterns of a planet’s wind, heat, moisture, and gases, providing statistical behaviors of the simulated climate.”  She sees a similar possibility with exoplanets and biosignatures.

 

Such a computer model can take in data from different fields and come up with some probabilities.  The model “might tell us that a planet is habitable over a certain percent of its surface,” she said.

“A geochemist or planetary formation person might then tell us that if certain chemistry exists on that planet, it has good potential for prebiotic compounds to form. A biologist and geologist might tell us that certain surface signatures on the planet are plausible for either life or mineral background.” That’s not a robust biosignature, but the probability that it could be life is not zero, depending on origin of the signature.

“These different forms of information can be integrated into a Bayesian analysis to tell us the likelihood of life on the planet,” she wrote.

One arm of the NExSS team is already using the tools of climate modeling to predict how particular conditions on exoplanets would play out under different circumstances.

 

This is a plot of what the sea ice distribution could look like on a synchronously rotating ocean world. The star is off to the right, blue is where there is open ocean, and white is where there is sea ice.  (NASA/GISS/Anthony Del Genio)

I will return to the NExSS biosignatures white paper later, since it is so rich with cutting edge thinking about this upcoming stage in space science.  But I do want to include one specific recommendation made by the group, which calls itself the Exoplanet Biosignatures Workshop Without Walls (EBWWW).

What they say is necessary now is for more biologists to join the search for extraterrestrial life.

“The EBWWW revealed that the search for exoplanet life is still largely driven by astronomers and planetary scientists, and that this field requires more input from origins of life researchers and biologists to advance a process-based understanding for planetary biosignatures.

“This includes assessing the {already assessed probability} that a planet may have life, or a life process evolved for a given planet’s environment. These advances will require fundamental research into the origins and processes of life, in particular for environments that vary from modern Earth’s. Thus, collaboration between origins of life researchers, biologists, and planetary scientists is critical to defining research questions around environmental context.”

The recommendation, it seems to me, illustrates both the youth and a maturing of the field.

 

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The Search for Exoplanet Life Goes Broad and Deep

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The scientific lessons learned over the centuries about the geological, chemical and later biological dynamics of Earth are beginning to enter the discussion of exoplanets, and especially which might be conducive to life. This is an artist's view of the young Earth under bombardment by asteroids, one of many periods with conditions likely to have parallels in other solar systems. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)
The scientific lessons learned over the centuries about the geological, chemical and later biological dynamics of Earth are beginning to enter the discussion of exoplanets, and especially which might be conducive to life. This is an artist’s view of the young Earth under bombardment by asteroids, one of many periods with conditions likely to have parallels in other solar systems. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

I had the good fortune several years ago to spend many hours in meetings of the science teams for the Curiosity rover, listening in on discussions about what new results beamed back from Mars might mean about the planet’s formation, it’s early history, how it gained and lost an atmosphere, whether it was a place where live could begin and survive.  (A resounding ‘yes” to that last one.)

At the time, the lead of the science team was a geologist, Caltech’s John Grotzinger, and many people in the room had backgrounds in related fields like geochemistry and mineralogy, as well as climate modelers and specialists in atmospheres.  There were also planetary scientists, astrobiologists and space engineers, of course, but the geosciences loomed large, as they have for all Mars landing missions.

Until very recently, exoplanet research did not have much of that kind interdisciplinary reach, and certainly has not included many scientists who focus on the likes of vulcanism, plate tectonics and the effects of stars on planets.  Exoplanets has been largely the realm of astronomers and astrophysicists, with a sprinkling again of astrobiologists.

But as the field matures, as detecting exoplanets and inferring their orbits and size becomes an essential but by no means the sole focus of researchers, the range of scientific players in the room is starting to broaden.  It’s a process still in its early stages, but exoplanet breakthroughs already achieved, and the many more predicted for the future, are making it essential to bring in some new kinds of expertise.

A meeting reflecting and encouraging this reality was held last week at Arizona State University and brought together several dozen specialists in the geo-sciences with a similar number specializing in astronomy and exoplanet detection.  Sponsored by NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS), NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the National Science Foundation,  it was a conscious effort to bring more scientists expert in the dynamics and evolution of our planet into the field of exoplanet study, while also introducing astronomers to the chemical and geological imperatives of the distant planets they are studying.

Twenty years after the detection of the first extra-solar planet around a star, the time seemed ripe for this coming together — especially if the organizing goal of the whole exoplanet endeavor is to search for signs of life beyond Earth.

 

Our vast body of knowledge about the formation, processes and evolution of Earth will become increasingly important in the exoplanet field as new generations of instruments make different and more precise kinds of measurements possible. Using Earth dynamics as a guide, those measurements will be made into models of what might be occurring on the exoplanets. The artist rendering of exoplanet Upsilon Andromedea g by Ron Howard.
Our vast body of knowledge about the formation, processes and evolution of Earth will become increasingly important in the exoplanet field as new generations of instruments make different and more precise kinds of measurements possible. Using Earth dynamics as a guide, those measurements will be made into models of what might be occurring on the exoplanets. The artist rendering of exoplanet Upsilon Andromedae g is by Ron Howard, Black Cat Studios.

Ariel Anbar, a biogeochemist at ASU, was one of the leaders of the meeting and the call for a broader exoplanet effort.

“The astronomical community has been pushing hard to make very difficult measurement, but they really haven’t been thinking much about the planetary context of what they’re finding.  And for geoscience, our people haven’t thought much about astronomical observations because they are so focused on Earth.”

“But this makes little sense because exoplanets open up a huge new field for geoscientists, and the astronomers absolutely need them to make the calls on what many of the measurements of the future actually mean.”

What’s more, the knowledge of researchers familiar with the dynamics of Earth will be essential when planet hunters and planet characterizers put together their wish lists for what kind of instruments are included in future telescopes and spectrographs.  For instance, a deep knowledge would be useful of the Earth’s carbon cycle, or what makes for a stable planetary climate, or what minerals and chemistry a habitable planet probably needs.

And then there are all the false positives and false negatives that could come with detections (or non-detections) of possible signatures of life.  The search for life beyond Earth has already had two highly-public and controversial seeming detections of extraterrestrial life — first by the Viking landers in the 1970s and the Mars meteorite ALH84001 in the mid 1990s.  The two are now considered inconclusive at best, and discredited at worst.

The risk of a similar, and even more complex, confusing and ultimately controversial, discovery of signs of life on an exoplanet are great.  The Arizona State workshop debated this issue at length.

President’s Professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Ariel Anbar, President’s Professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Molecular Sciences. He hopes that the drive to understand exoplanets will push his field to develop a missing general theory for the evolution of Earth and Earth-like planets.

What they came away with was the understanding that while one or two measured biosignatures from a distant planet would be enormously exciting, a deeper understanding of the planet’s atmosphere, interior, chemical makeup and relationship to its host star are pretty much required to make a firm conclusion about biological vs non-biological origins.  (Here is a link to an introductory and cautionary tale to the workshop by another of its organizers, astrophysicist Steven Desch.)

And so the issues under debate were:  Does a planet need plate tectonics to be able to support life?  (Yes on Earth, perhaps elsewhere.) Would the detection of oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere signify the presence of life? (Possibly, but not definitively.)  Does the chemical and mineral composition of a planet determine its ability to support life? (As far as we can tell, yes.)  Does photosynthesis inevitably lead to an oxygen atmosphere?  (It’s complicated.)

All these issues and many more serve to make the case that exoplanet science and Earth or planetary science need each other.

This is by no means an entirely new message — the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington has taken the approach for a decade from the standpoint of astronomy and the New Earths team of the NAI from a geological standing point.   But still, its urgency and proposed reach was  quite unusual.

It is also a reflection of both the success and direction of exoplanet science, because scientists have — or will have in the years ahead — the instruments and knowledge to learn more about an exoplanet than its location.  The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to provide much advanced ability to read the chemical compositions exoplanet atmospheres, as will a new generation of mammoth ground-based telescopes under construction and (scientists in the field fervently hope) a NASA flagship mission for the 2030s that would be able to directly image exoplanets with great precision.

But really, it’s when more and better measurements come in that the hard work begins.

Transmission spectrum of exoplanet MIT
Information about the make-up of exoplanets comes largely by studying the transmission spectra produced as the planet crosses in front of its star.  The spectra can identify some of the elements and compounds present around the exoplanet. Christine Naniloff/MIT, Julien De Wit.

 

Astrophysicist Steve Desch, for instance,  believes it is highly important to know what Earth-sized planets are like without life.  Starting with a biologically dead exoplanet in the Earth-sized ballpark, it would be possible to get a far better idea of the signatures of a similar planet with life.  But that’s a line of thinking that Earth scientists and geochemists are not, he said, used to addressing.  He felt the ASU workshop provided some consciousness-raising about the kinds of issues that are important to the exoplanet community, and to the Earth scientist, too.

Scientists from the geoscience side see similar limitations in the thinking of exoplanet astronomers.  Christy Till, a geologist and volcano specialist at ASU, said that at the close of the three-day workshop, she wasn’t at all sure that exoplanet scientists have been aware of just how complex the issue of “habitability” will be.

“Our field has learned over the decades that the solid interior of a planet is a big control on whether that planet can be habitable — along with the presence of volcanoes, the cycling elements like carbon and iron, and a relatively stable climate.  These issues were not widely discussed in terms of exoplanets, so I think we can help move the research further.”

Till is relatively new to thinking about exoplanets, brought into the field by the indisciplinary ASU (and NExSS/NAI) approach. But she said it has been most exciting to have the potential usefulness of her kind of knowledge expand on such a galactic scale.

Although the amount of detailed information about exoplanets is very limited, Till (and others) said what is and will be available can be used to create predictive models.  Absent the models that researchers can start building now, future information coming in could easily be misunderstood or simply missed.

ASU geologist and assistant professor Christy Till, a relatively new and enthusiastic member of the exoplanet community. (Abigail Wiebel)
ASU geologist and assistant professor Christy Till, a relatively new and enthusiastic member of the exoplanet community. (Abigail Wiebel)

While the usefulness of geosciences is being largely embraced in the exoplanet field, there are clear caveats.  If Earth becomes the model for what is needed for life in the cosmos, then is the field falling into a new version of the misguided Earth-centric view that long dominated astronomy and cosmology?

With that concern in mind, astronomer Drake Deming of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics made the case for collecting potential biosignatures of all kinds.  Since we don’t know how potential life on another planet might have formed, we also may well be unaware of what kind of signatures it would put out.  ASU geochemist Everett Shock was similarly wary of relying too heavily on the Earth model when trying to understand planets that may seem similar but are inevitably different.

And Ariel Anbar felt challenged by his more complete realization post-workshop that the exoplanets available to study for the foreseeable feature will not be Earth-sized, but will be “Super-Earths” with radii up to 1.5 times as great as that of our planet.  A proponent of much greater exoplanet-geoscience collaboration, he said the Earth science community has a big job ahead figuring out how the processes and dynamics understood on Earth would actually apply on these significantly larger relatives.

One participant at the workshop pretty much personifies the interdisciplinary bridge under construction , and he was encouraged by the extensive back-and-forth between the space scientists and the Earth scientists.

Shawn Domogal-Goldman, a research space scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and a leader of the NExSS group, is an expert in ancient earth as well the astrophysics of exoplanet detection and characterizing.  His view is that the Earth provides 4.5 billion years of physical, chemical, climatic and biological dynamics  that need to be mined for useful insights about exoplanets.

“For me, and I think for others, we’ll look back at this meeting years from now and say to ourselves, ‘We were there at the beginning of something big.'”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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