The Big Question with Manfred Cuntz: Searching for alien life

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What is the biggest question facing Astrobiology?

I feel that there is a consensus within the scientific community – a point of view also shared by many others – that the biggest question facing Astrobiology is finding life outside of planet Earth. So far, Earth is the only object within the entire Universe where life has been proven to exist. Conceptually, this finding puts “us” at the center of the biological Universe with apparently nothing (or, say, nobody) else around it. Historically, a similar situation had occurred for Astronomy where first Earth and later on the Sun were thought to be at the center of the Universe known at the time. Critical thinking seems to indicate that Biology may be – broadly speaking – universal throughout the Universe even though possible forms of life out there might be fundamentally different from those on Earth. It has even been speculated that some kinds of exolife may be difficult, if not impossible, for us to identify as such. Nevertheless, the search for life in the Universe is a road worth taking.

Why is it significant?

The discovery of exolife is expected to have profound implications for (natural) science and for other fields of study as well. Those may include philosophy, psychology, and religion – among others. Regarding science, the identification of exolife will shed new light on various aspects of astrophysics and biology. Concerning the latter, it will be of great interest to see if all life forms in the Universe are carbon-based and use water as a solvent. Another aspect concerns the types and commonness of extremophiles; i.e., life forms that require or are able to tolerate extreme environmental conditions. It has been argued that most forms of exolife may be highly simplistic and may have adjusted to different kinds of awkward conditions. If this is the case, exolife might be relatively frequent. On the other hand, the transition from non-living matter to living matter is a bottleneck, which may be difficult to pass.

Where is the answer likely to come from?

Since in-situ studies of exolife (if existing) are very unlikely to happen now and in the foreseeable future, other types of methods need to be used. Those will require a smart blend between theoretical work and detailed observations with focus on exoplanets and exomoons – especially those harbored in the extended solar neighborhood. Bonafide biosignatures from those objects may include the detection of macromolecules that to the best of our knowledge can’t be explained by non-biological processes or atmospheric imbalances that cannot be understood on the basis of non-biological geology, chemistry, or atmospheric science alone.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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