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New NASA Team Tackles Next Challenges in Detecting Life Beyond Earth

Press Release From: Ames Research Center
Posted: Monday, February 11, 2019

The question, "Are we alone?" has been a subject of speculation for centuries. The answer may soon lie within the grasp of science. 

Decades of research have led scientists to look deeply into the nature of life itself — what it is, how it began on Earth, and what other worlds might also support it.  A shift in focus is now emerging as scientists recognize that with a strategic push the possibility of detecting life beyond Earth could be on the horizon.

To support NASA’s growing emphasis on detecting life beyond Earth, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley has established the Center for Life Detection Science. CLDS brings together a diverse group of researchers at Ames and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to tackle the next set of challenges science must overcome to be able to one day detect life beyond Earth.

“We now have the scientific and engineering expertise to address this profound question with the clarity of scientific evidence — and we have a great community of scientists ready for that grand challenge,” said Tori Hoehler, the principle investigator of CLDS and a researcher at Ames

The center’s formation comes at a critical moment in the field of astrobiology, the study of the origin of life and its potential in the universe. A recent reportfrom the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that NASA should ramp up efforts to develop technologies capable of detecting life beyond Earth to use on future missions. The report, intended to help NASA develop its science strategy and research goals for the next 20 years, also urged the agency to seek collaboration with a diverse expertise outside of traditional space sciences to get more out of space mission opportunities.

In this spirit, the center is playing a foundational role in establishing a new consortium of researchers from within and outside of NASA with expertise in the physical sciences, biology, astrophysics and more. The Network for Life Detection, or NfoLD, will drive research in ways that inform where NASA should best invest its resources and the design of future missions with the capabilities of detecting life.

CLDS is joined by competitively selected teams from Georgetown University in Washington, DC and Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia to comprise the founding membership of NfoLD.

The Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures asks how we can recognize life “as we don’t know it.” Led by principal investigator Sarah Stewart Johnson of Georgetown University, this team of international researchers will lay the groundwork for detecting biosignatures of lifeforms that could be very different than those found on Earth, allowing for yet-to-be-conceived biochemistries that could produce exotic biomolecules.

The Oceans Across Space and Time team will investigate the possibilities of past or present life in the oceans of the icy, outer moons of our solar system, or on ancient Mars. By studying the conditions of aquatic systems that control their habitability, the team, led by principal investigator Britney Schmidt of Georgia Tech, will determine possible means of detecting biological activity in those systems.

Meanwhile, the center is connecting this new community of NfoLD researchers by building an interactive repository of information where researchers can explore and debate approaches in life detection that may one day be used to search for evidence of life on other worlds.

“The search for life beyond Earth cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Hoehler.  “To give ourselves the best shot at success, we need to develop tools and strategies that are tailored to detecting life in the unique conditions of other worlds, which are very different not only from Earth but also from each other.”

NfoLD’s three founding teams are expected to be joined in the coming year by dozens of new teams that are pursuing life detection-themed science or technology development. It represents a relatively new organizing model supported by NASA, called a research coordination network. NASA’s Astrobiology Program organized its first successful one in 2015 — the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, which was formed to study the habitability of planets beyond our solar system. NfoLD is the second one to come online with at least three more expected to form in future years in areas of astrobiology.

Top Image: This image is an artist's conception of what life could look like on the surface of a distant planet. Credit: NASA

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