A History of Astrobiology

Not long after NASA was established in 1958, the agency began a broad-based effort to learn how to look for the presence – both ancient and current – of life beyond Earth. Joining the agency’s human and robotic space programs with an offshoot of biology has not always been an easy or accepted fit, especially since no actual samples of life have ever been found elsewhere. But by now the two programs have become so interwoven, so interdependent, that each would be deeply damaged without the other.

Some of that initial pairing stemmed from fortuitous timing, the juxtaposition of two historic advances. First came surprising discoveries and follow-on theories about how life organizes itself, and how it might have started on Earth. That was followed soon after by our first successes in space travel, and the implicit promise of much more to come.

So the nation’s ability to reach into space came at a time when people were open, eager even, to learn more about the dynamics and origins of life on Earth… and possibly beyond.

The first humans to walk on another world - Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - flying the ascent stage of their Lunar Module back to the Moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. Apollo photographs of Earth, such as this one taken by Command Module pilot Michael Collins, helped launch the environmental movement and got us wondering about the habitability of other worlds. Image Credit: Apollo 11 / NASA

The connection between space exploration and astrobiology (then called exobiology) was highlighted and given early legitimacy by molecular biologist-turned-exobiologist Joshua Lederberg. Even before NASA was formally established, he was reaching out to colleagues about the possibilities of finding life beyond Earth. He won the Nobel Prize (at age 33, for discoveries about the genetics of bacteria) the same year NASA was founded.

By 1960 he was writing in the journal Science that: “Exobiology is no more fantastic than the realization of space travel itself, and we have a grave responsibility to explore its implications for science and for human welfare with our best scientific insights and knowledge.”

While the 1960s were defined within NASA primarily by the efforts to land humans on the Moon, all during that period the agency was also supporting a robust effort to prepare for a mission to Mars. Its core goal: To search for signatures of life beyond Earth.

That effort required substantial research into and inevitable debate about the nature of the “life” that the Viking landers would be looking for. What’s more, those in the biological fields became properly concerned about what microbial life the Viking landers might bring to Mars from Earth, and projecting further on extraterrestrial life that might some day be returned to our planet.

So while hunting for present or past life on Mars was a very popular idea, it opened a Pandora’s box of extremely difficult questions about the still-mysterious nature and origins of life. Nonetheless, the possibility of actually finding extraterrestrial life reached a fever pitch of excitement during the Viking landing in 1976. Many predicted that life would be found on Mars – including Carl Sagan, who looked forward to encountering, via Viking, visible, perhaps floating creatures.

Viking Lander on the surface of Mars in 1976. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

But those predictions gave way to first images of a bleak and barren martian landscape, and then to negative but also confusing scientific conclusions about whether signs of life, or even of organic compounds, had been detected.

The experience was sufficiently sobering that the study of Mars took an abrupt backseat, and it would be decades before interest recovered. And while orbiters, landers, and rovers returned to Mars in the 1990s and 2000s, it wasn’t until the 2012 landing of Curiosity that another astrobiology (though not life detection) mission began. Fortunately, a great deal had been learned in the intervening years.

For instance, previously unknown microbial communities were discovered on Earth that survive – thrive, even – in what were previously considered dead, uninhabitable environments. The first major “extremophile” discovery was made in the blackness of the deep ocean off the Galapagos Islands, alongside the hydrothermal vents that dot the seafloor. Not only were microbes and later tube worms found living in the total dark, but they were living in water made scaldingly hot by the vents.

That 1977 discovery led researchers to extreme environments around the world, where they found microbes living in bitter cold, in highly acidic and salty water, in the rock of goldmines dug miles underground, in the atmosphere high above ground, and in surroundings with high levels of radioactivity.

This explosion of often NASA-sponsored research told scientists a great deal about life on Earth, but it also quite clearly suggested that life can exist beyond Earth in conditions long deemed unsurvivable – such as the frozen-over oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

A tubeworm at a hydrothermal vent on the ocean floor. Chemosynthetic bacteria living inside the tubeworms derive energy from chemicals emitted in the hot water of hydrothermal vents. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, MCR Expedition 2011, NOAA-OER

Researchers have also found all the chemicals needed for life in space, and many of the key building blocks in meteorites and even comets. Amino acids, for instance, were found in samples of the comet Wild 2 after NASA’s Stardust spacecraft passed through the comet’s dusty coma in 2004, and nucleotides have been discovered by NASA scientists in meteorites. These results from the field of “astrochemistry” have told scientists that the ingredients presumed to be needed for life are actually falling on planets, moons, and asteroids everywhere.

How those and other organic compounds might organize into self-replicating forms, and ultimately organisms, has been among the most challenging fields in astrobiology. By both digging into the genetic infrastructure of life as well as trying to recreate it in the laboratory, scientists have pushed back the mystery of life’s origins to an early RNA world and even a pre-RNA world. But the process through which non-living substances took on the attributes of life remains elusive.

Earth-based research has been essential to astrobiology and has significantly changed our understanding of Earth and what might be possible on other worlds. But NASA and European robotic missions and space telescopes have most often been the engines that drive the field.

Guided by the mantra “follow the water,” NASA missions in our solar system have discovered a surprising variety of astrobiology targets. First came Jupiter’s moon Europa, with an ocean beneath its icy crust. On-going research suggests that the water is salty, a brine with apparent parallels to our oceans. And most recently plumes of that water may have been detected leaking from the moon – similar in some ways to those spurting out of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Jets spewing water vapor and ice on Saturn’s moon Enceladus was detected by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005. The jets might originate from a deep underground sea, or from ice melted off walls of deep rifts by the moon's tidal flexing and heating. Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

The water story on Mars has been especially promising, with the identification of deep river channels, valley systems, alluvial fans, and, more recently, lakes and suggestions of a once-grand northern ocean. The dwarf planet Ceres and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede now also appear to hold inner oceans, and the possibilities for finding more water worlds seem endless.

That’s because the past twenty years have witnessed a revolution in our understanding of exoplanets – bodies that orbit distant suns. Scientists have long suspected that other stars produce solar systems, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the first was detected. Since then thousands more have been identified, especially by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, but also through ground-based observations.

As the estimated number of exoplanets has grown into the many billions, the possibility that some are home to living organisms has become more plausible and the subject of substantial research. Scientists have determined that some of the planets are rocky and “Earth-like,” and orbiting their sun well within a “habitable zone” – at a distance where water can remain liquid on the surface of the planet for at least some of the time. Far more than a rocky surface and occasionally liquid water is needed to make a planet truly habitable, but it’s an important start.

In retrospect, we can see that a broad range of advances in astrobiology set the stage for what immediately became the biggest news of all — the possible detection of signs of ancient martian life.

Headlines in 1996 told of a NASA research team, led by David McKay, that had found six indicators of past life in a meteorite from Mars. The famous ALH84001 meteorite, uncovered in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica in 1984, was presented as containing clear signs that microbial life once existed on Mars. There were even images of what was interpreted to be the fossil remains of a bacterium-like life form.

This magnified, optical view of the ALH 84001 meteorite shows unusual orange and black disk patterns made of carbonate, a mineral that forms at low temperature in the presence of water. An asteroid impact on Mars long ago sent this rock hurtling into space, where it stayed for 16 million years before finally landing on Earth 13,000 years ago. A team of scientists found the rock in the Allan Hills ice field in Antarctica in 1984. The meteorite made headlines in 1996 when astrobiologists announced that it contained evidence of microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria. Whether true or not, this discovery launched the field of astrobiology as we know it. Image Credit: Kathie Thomas-Keprta and Simon Clemett/ESCG at NASA Johnson Space Center

As with the Viking results, however, many in the Mars and astrobiology communities were not convinced. While the authors of both the Viking results and the Mars meteorite results stand by their work, the scientific consensus has largely rejected them — concluding that the findings could be explained without the presence of biology.

Nonetheless, the Mars meteorite and the excitement surrounding it gave a jumpstart to NASA’s renewed search for life beyond Earth. The NASA Astrobiology Institute was founded two years after the Mars meteorite paper was released, with Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg as its director, and the organization has been funding wide-ranging research ever since.

Some of the work involves studying environments on Earth to better understand potentially similar ones beyond Earth (so-called “analogue environments”). Other work goes into technology development for use on other planets and moons, while other research explores the origins and early development of life on our planet.

Examples include:

Field test of ENDURANCE - the Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctiC Explorer. This robot has been used to investigate the waters of Lake Bonney in Antarctica. Image credit: NASA/Stone Aerospace

The 2000s saw a renewed interest in exploring Mars with NASA orbiters, landers, and rovers. None had specifically astrobiological missions, but all contributed to better understanding pathways into the discipline’s goals. The Phoenix lander, for instance, found water ice in the north of Mars, ground-truthing the theory that Mars had substantial ice deposits just under its surface. The MER rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, detected carbonates and other minerals important to understanding the potential for biology in the martian past.

And then came Curiosity, which has had an explicitly astrobiological mission – to determine whether ancient Mars was habitable. The rover does not have the capacity to assess whether the planet was actually once inhabited by microbial life, but the results it has collected have convinced its science team that portions of the Gale Crater landing site were once perfectly capable of supporting life. It was the first formal identification of a habitable environment beyond Earth.

As is always the case with astrobiology, it was a combination of results — gathered by way of geology, geochemistry, minerology, sedimentology, super-high temperature chemistry and precision photography — that led to the conclusion. These findings support the theory that Mars was warmer and much wetter during its earliest days, even though climate modelers can’t figure out how an ancient Mars could have been warm enough, and had an atmosphere thick enough, to keep that water liquid for potentially tens of millions of years.

As technologies and scientific understandings have progressed, astrobiology has entered ever more fields. Moving beyond the astronomical detections of a cosmic menagerie of exoplanets, efforts are now underway to analyze the atmospheres, and ultimately the surfaces, of those bodies.

Carbon dioxide, water, and other compounds have already been detected in exoplanet atmospheres, but the ultimate goal is to find concentrations of oxygen, ozone and perhaps methane – gases which are associated with biology. Because oxygen and ozone quickly bond with other elements, the presence of large reservoirs of elemental oxygen, for instance, would tell scientists that it is constantly being produced. On Earth, the production of oxygen is largely a function of life.

The view inside Endurance crater, by MER Opportunity. Image credit: NASA

With so many lines of research underway, NASA leaders are optimistic about finding life beyond Earth in the relatively near future.

“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” said NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and a former astronaut, shares Stofan’s optimism, predicting that signs of life will be found relatively soon both in our own solar system and beyond.

“I think we’re one generation away in our solar system, whether it’s on an icy moon or on Mars, and one generation [away to find life] on a planet around a nearby star,” he said.

Artist representation of Kepler 62f, an exoplanet detected with the Kepler Space Telescope. Modelers think the planet could be a rocky world with water, and potentially habitable. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-CalTech
Written by Marc Kaufman

Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. He also writes the Many Worlds blog.