Life beyond Earth: How will it first be detected?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

An overview of the status and prospects of the search for life in the universe is presented. The search for life beyond the Earth is being carried out using a variety of techniques in three distinct realms of space. First is the study of habitable locations in the Solar System using spacecraft and robotic probes. Second is the detection of the global alteration of exoplanet atmospheres by metabolic processes of microbes, with targets typically Earth-like terrestrial planets within 20 or 30 parsecs. Third is a search for the signatures of technology from extraterrestrial civilizations, in the form of pulsed radio and optical signals, thermal footprints, or physical artifacts. Targets for this third search span a significant fraction of the galaxy. Rough estimates are made of the odds that each of these strategies will be successful and the timescale for that outcome. All the estimates assume that life will form given suitable conditions and chemical ingredients. The best near-term prospect for the detection of life is the detection of biomarkers in exoplanet atmospheres using the James Webb Space Telescope and a set of large, ground-based telescopes that will come online later this decade. Optimal chances of detection center on super-Earths orbiting red dwarf stars. The next best prospect will come from the search for relic traces of life in ancient Mars rocks returned to the Earth, early next decade. Subsequently, missions to several potentially habitable locations in the outer Solar System could detect biomarkers. The most exciting of these involves Titan, where biology would likely have a different biochemical basis than life on Earth. The strategy deemed least likely to succeed, having indeterminate odds of success, is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI, or more accurately referred to as the search for extraterrestrial technology. The technical capabilities to detect artificial radio and optical pulses has been increasing exponentially, but the parameter space of the search is enormous, and is it impossible to interpret the meaning of a null result. While SETI could succeed at any time, it's likely that life will first be detected on a relatively nearby exoplanet, using spectroscopic methods allied to high resolution imaging. The discovery, when it comes, will be one of the most important in scientific history.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalActa Astronautica
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Astrobiology
  • Biomarkers
  • Exoplanets
  • SETI
  • Solar system
  • Spacecraft
  • Telescopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering

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