The Year of Astrobiology?

From Ultima Thule to life detection on Mars, biology moves to the forefront of space exploration.

Mars (pictured by the Curiosity rover), still a mystery when it comes to life. But we may be getting closer to finding answers.

Just after the ball dropped in New York’s Times Square to ring in 2019, the New Horizons probe flew by the farthest object ever encountered by a human-made spacecraft—an achievement followed the next day by China’s historic first-ever landing on the lunar far side. The year isn’t even a week old, and it’s already been a great one for space exploration.

Not only did New Horizons’ flyby of Ultima Thule set a new distance record, besting the same spacecraft’s earlier record at Pluto by more than a billion miles, but the exploration of the Kuiper Belt will eventually provide insights on what role the Solar System’s most distant objects had in delivering water and organic matter to our planet. These ingredients may have played a critical role in the origin of life on Earth about four billion years ago. I’m sure the new discoveries from Ultima Thule will be hotly discussed at the 20th Meeting of the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group convening in Houston later this month.

At the very same time, another conference will be meeting in Carlsbad, New Mexico, to take up the exciting topic of “Mars Extant Life: What’s Next?” The discussion will range from where we should send a new robotic spacecraft to find indigenous life on Mars, to what technologies and tools will be needed to make an unambiguous life detection.

To my knowledge, this is the first major conference in this century to focus on the goal of finding currently thriving life on Mars. Thus, this meeting may be the start of a major shift in Mars exploration, which has been largely focused on the history of liquid water on Mars after the Viking life detection experiments of 40 years ago proved inconclusive.

There are two developments that I see propelling this shift in thinking. First is the confirmation of organic compounds on Mars, without which life would not be possible. Second is the renewed interest by NASA in a human mission to the Red Planet. Before such an expedition is launched, we should find out (with robotic spacecraft) whether life exists there, both for the safety of the astronauts and for all of our safety when they bring Martian samples to Earth.

There will be many other scientific meetings this year relevant to astrobiology—some of them entirely devoted to the subject, including the Astrobiology Science Conference held in Seattle in June, and the European Astrobiology Meeting in Orleans, France, and the German Astrobiology Meeting in Vienna, both planned for the fall. Astrobiology, it seems, is gaining in popularity even as it makes major advances, perhaps even closing in on the elusive goal of finding the first extraterrestrial life.

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