Thursday, December 2, 2021

NASA Says We Need To Talk About What Happens When We Find Life Beyond Earth

While we have yet to find any evidence for extraterrestrial life, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared for the day that might change.

After all, many scientists think alien life is entirely possible, if not entirely probable.

While we have yet to find strong evidence to support the hypothetical existence of life beyond Earth, we are nevertheless always looking for it. However, if or when we ever find this evidence – or even begin to piece together the first, gradual traces of it – we need to be prepared, NASA scientists say.

In a new scientific commentary led by none other than space agency chief scientist James Green, NASA researchers argue why we need to create a basis for reporting evidence for extraterrestrial life.

“Our generation could actually find evidence of life beyond Earth,” the team writes. “With this privileged potential comes responsibility.”

According to the researchers, the discovery of alien life by mankind is unlikely to become a “yes or no” event on the principle of “all or nothing.”

Rather, it is more likely that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will be a long, evolving process of scientific research and discovery – and the sooner everyone understands this, the better.

“The story includes many claims about the discovery of life, which later turned out to be incorrect or ambiguous if viewed exclusively in binary terms,” ​​the researchers explain.

“If, instead, we reformulate the search for life as a progressive endeavor, we convey the value of observations that are contextual or suggestive, but not definitive, and emphasize that false starts and dead ends are an expected part of a healthy scientific process.”

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The complexity of this kind of multi-level qualitative assessment is so great that we need a progressive scale to measure and map new discoveries – something like the technological readiness level (TRL) scale that NASA itself uses to track the progress of space flight instruments. all the way from concept to implementation in real missions.

In the context of astrobiological detection of life, NASA says we could use an analogue: the Confidence in Life Detection (CoLD) scale, with the lowest levels of the scale focused on the initial identification of potential biosignatures, with higher levels reserved for more specific and certain measurements of the subject.

This fine scale – tracking potential life discoveries against a range of objective, increasingly demanding criteria – will help put all putative biosignatures in a standardized context, helping the research community (and the wider community that monitors their work) to interpret any new discoveries by scientists. report.

“Establishing good practice for life detection communication can serve to set reasonable expectations early on in an extremely difficult task, give importance to incremental steps along the way, and build public confidence, making it clear that false starts and dead ends are expected and potentially productive parts of science. process, “the researchers write.

“Whatever the outcome of the dialogue, what matters is that it happens … In doing so, we can only communicate more effectively about the results of our work and the miracles associated with it.”

Perspective published in Nature

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