There’s some disagreement out there about how to search for extraterrestrial life. One the one hand, there’s this tiny, 17-pound device.
At just 17 pounds, the new instrument is a dramatically miniaturized version of an “Orbitrap,” a popular device for detecting compounds that usually weighs hundreds of pounds—it’s so small that it fits in a person’s hand. It is designed to scan extraterrestrial samples for signs of life, known as biosignatures, with a sophisticated technique known as laser desorption mass spectrometry (LDMS).
On the other hand, there’s increasing calls to consider “life as we don’t know it” and/or “lyfe” (“any system that fulfills all four processes of the living state”).
Much of astrobiology research involves searching for chemical “biosignatures”—molecules or combinations of molecules that could indicate the presence of life. But because scientists can’t reliably say that ET life should look, chemically, like Earth life, seeking those signatures could mean we miss beings that might be staring us in the face. “How do we move beyond that?” Johnson asks. “How do we contend with the truly alien?” Scientific methods, she thought, should be more open to varieties of life based on varied biochemistry: life as we don’t know it. Or, in a new term coined here, “LAWDKI.”
From the first piece:
To search for life on these tantalizing worlds, mission planners need instruments that are both extremely precise, but also small enough to fit on a spacecraft, which can be a tough sweet spot to hit. Now, scientists led by Ricardo Arévalo, Jr., an associate professor of geology at the University of Maryland, have offered a new solution with their LDMS instrument, which can unambiguously identify biological compounds in environments that are expected to be similar to icy ocean worlds, like Europa and Enceladus, according to a study published on Monday in Nature Astronomy.
“Future astrobiology missions to Europa, Enceladus and other potentially viable ocean worlds will be challenged to distinguish biological signatures without bias towards features associated with terrestrial life,” Arévalo and his colleagues said in the study.
From the second piece:
After the meeting, Johnson and her co-conspirators put in a last-minute proposal to develop an instrument for NASA. It would find and measure molecules whose shapes fit physically together like lock and key because that rarely happens in random collections of chemical compounds but pops up all over living cells. The instrument idea, though, didn’t make the cut. “That’s when we realized, ‘Okay, we need to roll this back and do a lot more fundamental work,’” Graham says.
The space agency would give them a chance to do so, soon putting out a call for “Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research.” It promised multiple years of funding to dig deeper into Johnson and her associates’ lunch-table ideas. They needed a larger team, though, so they pinged planetary scientists, biologists, chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers—some space-centric to the core and others, Johnson says, “just beginning to consider the astrobiology implications of their work.” It was particularly important to do this now because researchers are planning to send life-detection instruments to destinations such as the solar system moons Europa, Enceladus and Titan, more exotic than most of the worlds visited so far. “Most of these other places we’re beginning to think about as targets for astrobiology are really weird and different,” Johnson says. If you’re going to a weird and different place, you might expect weird and different life, squirming invisibly beyond the reach of a lamppost’s light.
It seems to me absurdly geocentric to build instruments to consider only life as we know it, especially if there’s a potential way to identify life as we don’t.