Humanity is closer to discovering extraterrestrial life than we ever expected — or, at least, life that shares a different origin than anything we know on Earth.
Astrobiology isn’t about chasing flying saucers, necessarily. Certainly, scientists search for origins of life on other planets, but astrobiology also uncovers new forms of Earth life we’ve never imagined before. The scientific tools to do so are advancing faster than ever, and as outer space travel increasingly becomes the domain of SpaceX and other private companies, NASA and foreign space agencies are focusing more resources on inner astrobiology.
Specifically, the study of and uses for alien-like life on Earth.
In 2010, geobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s team found a strange form of “arsenic life” in California’s Mono Lake. Unlike all other earthly life, it subsisted on the poisonous element arsenic instead of phosphorous. It was alien.
The science community raised serious questions about her team’s paper, encircling her and fellow authors in controversy. However, it was an unprecedented finding. Even if Wolfe-Simon and her group were wrong, their research helped pioneer a process to suss out microbial life not of this earth — on Earth.
A year later, Richard Hoover, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center who helped found NASA’s astrobiology program, made a startling claim: Some Martian meteorites showed proof of extraterrestrial life. According to Hoover, an asteroid uncovered by scientists in Antarctica in 1996 contained “microfossils,” tiny, microscopic gaps and fibers that indicated the presence of microbial life on Mars. This was the third time since 1997 Hoover asserted he’d found proof of extraterrestrial life in meteorites.
Soon, however, NASA officially distanced itself from Hoover’s claim after major issues arose with the peer review process. Hoover retired shortly after and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham in Great Britain.
Neither Hoover nor Wolfe-Simon managed to convince the larger scientific community that they had proof of extraterrestrial life. But both came closer than anyone before.
Astrobiology research, conducted mostly under the aegis of NASA and a few other space agencies, is attempting to answer the big, existential questions of humanity — where we came from, how life came about, the origins of the solar system and whether there’s anything else in space lifelike at all. In an age when the vanguard of space travel is transitioning from governments to private corporations like SpaceX, NASA is redefining itself as a cutting-edge research institution.
Bonus: Discovering alien microbial life would be the holy grail of all funding goals.
In the meantime, though, what are we finding? And are astrobiology discoveries helping humans?
Turns out, the study of alien life and life’s origins has huge industrial applications here on Earth. Astrobiology research is helping everything from recycling to oil prospecting. And astrobiologists are using these applications to justify their continued search for extraterrestrial life. If researchers keep serving everyday industrial needs in sectors like health care, for example, it helps to secure funding from skeptical government bureaucrats and create revenue streams for these scientists to conduct their unusual research in the first place.
The alien catch-22. The search for E.T. depends just as much on heavy industry or big health care as it does on NASA.
Life (and patents) on Mars
By 2020, the European Union and Russia — if God, the European budget crisis and international geopolitics cooperate — are expected to launch a Martian rover called ExoMars. It will complement the American Mars Curiosity Rover and its successor in surveying the Red Planet’s surface. When ExoMars begins its slow path across Martian soil, it will search for evidence of past microbial life.
Some of the ExoMars equipment comes from a device called the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA), a system built to find amino acids that could indicate the presence of life. Created by Alison Skelley and Richard Mathies of the University of California, Berkeley, in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MOA searches for amino acids that spiral to the left instead of the right, like most other amino acids. Many scientists, Mathies and Skelley included, feel this “right-handedness” is a hallmark of organic life.
While the device was being tested in the dry, Mars-like deserts of Chile, Mathies says, “This instrument is a thousand times better at detecting biomarkers than any instrument put on Mars before.”
But a machine originally meant to detect alien life on another planet soon found different uses.
The MOA helped Mathies develop something completely terrestrial, even ordinary: A way to predict (and thus, avoid) the headaches and flushed skin associated with red wine.
The same biochips MOA used to analyze organic material could detect amines that contribute to red wine headaches. Mathies eventually spun the technology into a suitcase-sized prototype, which could determine in a number of seconds whether a particular variety of wine contained certain amines.
Mathies’ discovery is just one of several industrial advances made by astrobiologists, after studying outer space and extremophiles (that is, “strange” life that lives in underwater thermal vents, the far Arctic or other inhospitable environments). Other applications: bacteria used to manufacture super-strong plastics, polymers used to clean oil spills and detection mechanisms for counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
Take the extremophiles in Antarctica’s Lake Vostok. The mysterious body of water is covered by approximately 13,000 feet of ancient glacial ice. Before scientists completed drilling core samples in 2012, Vostok was undisturbed by the surface world for at least 15 million years. They soon discovered, however, Vostok is home to some very unusual small organisms that thrive in salt-rich environments.
Researchers Ram Karan and Dahe Zhao found that these creatures — called halophiles — could help produce biofuel, chemical waste treatment or even biodegradable, plastic-like materials. This strange new organism, which humanity only unearthed within the past few years, turned out to have multiple applications.
Similarly, enzymes found in the alien ecosystems of searingly hot Yellowstone National Park geysers can treat wastes from chemical bleaching processes and are unusually useful at degrading hydrogen peroxide. They thrive in the high-temperature, pH-rich chemical stew of industrial bleaching solutions.
According to Lynne Rothschild, an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the study of extremophiles has surprising commercial potential. In 2012, she told an audience at Stanford University that research into extremophiles could lead to important scientific discoveries in deflecting ultraviolet radiation (thanks to strange bacteria that live in radiation-rich environments), protecting ancient historic sites like the Lascaux Cave paintings in France from bacteria, and developing new antifreeze proteins for “everything from blood preservation to ice cream preservation.”
When scientists search Earth like they would search for extraterrestrial life, the industrial (and monetization) potential is vast.
Answering the big questions
Paul Davies, an English-born physicist and cosmologist, is one of Arizona State’s best known scientific figures. The author of a successful line of pop science books with names like How to Build a Time Machine and Are We Alone?, Davies heads up the University’s Beyond Center. Beyond focuses on answering big questions traditionally addressed by philosophy — “Why are we here?” and “Where did we come from?” — using the tools of scientific inquiry.
Davies explained his theory that the origin of life will be discovered through information theory rather than chemistry. In layperson’s terms, that means Davies and his colleague Sara Imari Walker believe that humanity will best understand life’s origins on Earth through analytical approaches typically used in computer science and mathematics — not, like most scientists believe, through chemistry or biology.
(Walker’s lab at Arizona State is deeply involved in this hypothesis. Her published papers would sound familiar to any tech geek: “The Algorithmic Origins of Life,” for example.)
It is an unorthodox opinion, but one that falls within the range of scientific plausibility. And it certainly attracts today’s innovation-hungry media and an all-star roster of bold-faced scientists. Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Microsoft Research’s Eric Horvitz and Craig Ventner all appeared onstage at one of Arizona State’s recent astrobiology-focused events, run by Lawrence Krauss’ Origins Project. The project centers around public education about developments in cosmology, biology and physics — the building blocks of astrobiology.
Krauss described the purpose of Origins: “It brings together scientists from vastly different disciplines to look at forefront questions,” and uses astrobiology and the questions of humanity’s origins as an attention-getter that ropes the public into attending talks and conferences.
Similar research takes place a few hours’ flight away at the University of California, Berkeley. Mathies and colleagues work with NASA to conduct astrobiology research in conjunction with ASU and a few other universities. NASA’s astrobiology program is tasked with funding and promoting research into what they call the “study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.” Astrobiology researchers at Berkeley have conducted groundbreaking research to try to find proof of extraterrestrial microscopic life here in the solar system.
Craig Stark is an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who studies the atmospheres of planets outside the solar system. That means he studies clouds on other planets. In a conversation with Mashable, Stark said these clouds are far different than any hovering above Earth. “They aren’t clouds made of droplets of water; they are made of drops of magnesium, silicates, fancy minerals similar to what you’d see in a volcanic ice cloud on this planet.”
Everything, for astrobiologists, comes down to the question of answering how life first arose — or if they can’t do that, connecting the dots of the conditions that led to life coming into existence. Because NASA and the European Space Agency are constantly fighting for funding, astrobiologists have to fight an uphill battle for their share of the cake. The patents that come with studying strange, novel forms of life help justify their funding.
By finding industrial applications, astrobiologists are able to subsidize their research into E.T. And the occasional huge outer space discovery doesn’t hurt.
Since the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed, scientists have identified 1,732 exoplanets outside the solar system. It’s a game-changer, Stark says. Because researchers are now able to observe and record data about exoplanets, it’s meant a shift from hypothetical guesses to a more substantial, evidence-based approach toward extraterrestrial life. It has made astrobiologists’ research efforts far easier.
And NASA wants to keep paving the astrobiology roadmap — whether it’s theorizing the origins of life or searching for extraterrestrial life.
The bureaucrats who love science
Since the end of the Space Shuttle program, though, NASA’s role has changed. The venerable space exploration agency, which has had funding challenges ever since the Apollo program, is now part of a space ecosystem in which private players like SpaceX play an increasingly bigger part. More than ever, NASA is a scientific development agency, which means engaging the public to ask legislators for more funds.
For astrobiologists, NASA serves as a clearinghouse. It distributes funding, connects similarly minded thinkers and coordinates research across multiple universities and continents. And because of limited funding, NASA relies mostly on university partners to conduct astrobiology research, says Mary Voytek, head of NASA’s astrobiology program.
Back in 2008, NASA put into place an astrobiology roadmap [PDF] for the next five years. The plans were stretched past the five-year deadline, reportedly due to the 2013 government shutdown. Voytek says her section was mostly unaffected, but that although “government agencies did as much as they possibly could to protect our greatest assets, we’re still recovering … When everyone’s gone, things grind to a halt.”
Academics are now working with NASA to develop a new astrobiology strategic plan, which will determine the future of America’s biological search for alien life. NASA’s new astrobiology roadmap is expected to release in late 2014.
Voytek spoke before the House of Representatives last year to promote her department’s extraterrestrial mandate. In what was essentially a request for more funding, she explained to the House Science committee that her scientists weren’t chasing little green men. Astrobiology is an investment in humanity’s future, by detecting potentially habitable Earth-sized planets, finding proof of water on ancient Mars and developing technological innovations that lead to further mapping of Mars.
The discovery of life outside Earth, whether microbial or otherwise, would at least be the biggest scientific advance since we decoded the human genome, and at most would be the biggest single event in humanity’s history. It would cause NASA’s astrobiology funding to swell, to say the least.
But without that game-changing discovery, astrobiologists continue to struggle for money, both due to NASA’s limited budget and a lack of public understanding for their research.
Answering the existential questions
The astrobiologists I spoke with saw their work as twofold: Their goals are finding biological signatures of life beyond Earth and discovering how life came about on this planet. But that work requires funding, which sometimes must be garnered from skeptical or hostile politicians.
Astrobiology and Extraterrestrial Life
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center (SETI) specialists testified on the scientific methods used to look for extraterrestrial life, including radio and optical astronomy techniques.
When two astrobiologists affiliated with another government-funded program called SETI, which searches for intelligent life beyond Earth, testified before Congress in May (video above), the hearing was packed. But some of the reactions were skeptical or puzzling. Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) asked the researchers about their thoughts on the sensationalist Ancient Aliens television program. Although many members of Congress, such as Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) asked insightful questions, most appeared to understand astrobiology mainly through science fiction movies.
To be sure, astrobiology’s industrial spinoffs help keep researchers on safe funding ground.
The interim solution is smaller, more niche astrobiology applications — temporary band-aids for a long-term problem. Industrial applications and commercial patents keep funders happy, while scientists continue to search for those magical Martian microbes.
“We’d be surprised if a little green man walked out [on] Mars,” Voytek says. Instead, she characterized the goal of her department and astrobiology researchers as a whole as finding the origins of life and clues to Earth’s place in the universe. If alien life is found in the process, well, it would only sweeten the deal.