The Search for Extraterrestrial Life
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and existence of life in the universe. The search for life beyond Earth requires a wide-ranging understanding of not only the nature of the types of environments that may support life and the different planetary systems but also stellar interactions and processes. As such, astrobiology is a multi-disciplinary field that draws upon the knowledge of many different scientific areas, such as biology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, sociology, atmospheric science, and aeronautical engineering. It is also not unusual to find courses on theology and philosophy in an astrobiology curriculum as the search for life touches upon the very meaning of our existence. The principal areas of astrobiological research are (i) understanding the conditions under which life can arise, (ii) looking for habitable worlds, and (iii) searching for evidence of life.
One way is through the recent discovery that the deep-sea hydrothermal vents found on the ocean floor provide a unique habitat where only certain kinds of organisms can survive, and its parallels with the conditions found in deep space. Astrobiologists have developed exploration techniques to study life in these extreme environments to determine how organisms evolved to survive in such extreme environments. The techniques used for deep-sea exploration provide an excellent proving ground for extraterrestrial exploration.
Another way is through a newer branch of science called planetary oceanography, which involves the study of oceans on planets and moons other than Earth. Ocean scientists are applying the research experience and techniques they developed to explore the deep ocean to the search for life in oceans beyond the Earth. Accordingly, the focus on ocean worlds – planets with substantial, stable liquid on or below their surface – requires expertise in ocean science-related fields such as marine microbiology, marine biology, hydrology, and physical, geological, chemical, and biological oceanography.
To learn more about astrobiology and to access Ocean Connect’s wide range of educational and career resources, please visit our Astrobiology Snapshot.