Status Report

State of NASA Astrobiology 2022

By SpaceRef Editor
March 30, 2022
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The field of astrobiology is thriving and growing around the world, with NASAs Astrobiology Program leading the way. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. The search for signs of life beyond Earth has been a key element of NASAs planetary exploration program since the agencys very beginnings. Thanks to astrobiology research, we now have a deep understanding of how life and environment have co-evolved on Earth, which helps astrobiologists to identify potentially habitable environments in our solar system and beyond. We have a deep understanding of the nature and prevalence of complex organic molecules in deep space, which may have been delivered to Earth in its early days and jump-started the origins of life here. We have a deep understanding of the nature and evolution of life on Earth, which helps astrobiologists to think about the possible nature and evolution of life beyond Earth.

From NASAs Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s which did not detect evidence of life there but were otherwise extremely successful the agency has launched a series of ever-more-successful missions to the Red Planet. The Mars Exploration Rovers and the Curiosity rover surpassed expectations and made new discoveries about the past habitability of Mars. Our newest mission, the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, are exploring an ancient habitat that may have preserved evidence of past life and collecting samples of the rocks there. Plans are under way for a Mars Sample Return mission for these samples a top priority for astrobiologists for decades, and now coming to fruition.

Beyond Mars, NASA continues its preparation for missions to Jupiters moon Europa and Saturns moon Titan, both potentially habitable worlds. NASAs Europa Clipper mission, to launch in 2024, will orbit this moon, which has a subsurface ocean covered by a thick ice shell, to see whether oceans on icy moons could support life, and scout a location for a future astrobiology lander. Next its on to Titan with NASAs Dragonfly mission to launch in 2027, a dual-quadcopter, which will explore a variety of locations on the surface to look for prebiotic chemical processes common on both Titan and Earth.

In addition to contributing scientific investigations and instruments for space missions, NASA Astrobiology supports research in the field, allowing scientists to explore the limits to life in extreme environments on Earth that serve as analogues for harsh environments on other planets. From Iceland to the Atacama Desert of Chile to the deepest parts of the ocean, astrobiologists are learning more about what kinds of life can survive in such environments.

We now have confirmed the existence of over 5,000 exoplanets orbiting stars outside of the Solar System. Astrobiologists and astronomers have been working for decades in the search for exoplanets and developing techniques to look for biosignatures (signs of biological activity) in exoplanet atmospheres. This work will be propelled forward by the recent launch and commissioning of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will tell us more about these atmospheres, and perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.

The NASA Astrobiology Program has long been dedicated to supporting and encouraging students and early-career researchers and promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. These efforts have greatly enriched the field and guarantee that astrobiology will continue to thrive and grow in future decades.

Oh, the places well go! (with thanks to Dr. Seuss) with future missions to look for signs of life beyond Earth.

SpaceRef staff editor.