Even though we haven’t discovered any evidence of extraterrestrial life so far, we should be prepared for the day when that changes.
After all, many scientists believe that alien life is a distinct possibility – if not an outright probability.
While we have yet to find even a speck of hard evidence to support the hypothetical existence of life beyond Earth, we are always on the lookout for it. If or when we do find that evidence – or even begin to piece together the first, incremental traces of it – NASA scientists say we must be prepared.
In a new scientific commentary – led by none other than the space agency’s chief scientist, James Green – NASA researchers make the case for why we need to establish a framework for reporting evidence of extraterrestrial life.
“Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth,” the team writes. “With this privileged potential comes responsibility.”
The researchers believe that the discovery of alien life by humanity is unlikely to be a yes-or-no, all-or-nothing event.
Rather, the detection of extraterrestrial life is more likely to be a long-term, evolving process of scientific investigation and discovery – and the sooner everyone understands this, the better.
“History includes many claims of life detection that later proved incorrect or ambiguous when considered in exclusively binary terms,” the researchers explain.
“If, instead, we recast 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.”
Because this type of multi-tiered, qualitative assessment is so complex, we need a progressive scale to measure and chart new discoveries – something similar to the technology readiness level (TRL) scale that NASA uses to track the progress of spaceflight instruments from concept to implementation in actual missions.
NASA suggests using an analogy in the context of astrobiological detections of life: a “confidence of life detection” (CoLD) scale, with the lowest levels of the scale focusing on the initial identification of potential biosignatures and higher levels reserved for more specific and certain measurements of the subject.
A more nuanced scale – tracking potential life detections against a series of objective, progressively more demanding benchmarks – would help place all purported biosignatures in a standardized context, assisting the research community (and the larger community following their work) to interpret whatever new findings scientists report.
“Establishing best practices for communicating about life detection can serve to set reasonable expectations on the early stages of a hugely challenging endeavor, attach value to incremental steps along the path, and build public trust by making clear that false starts and dead ends are an expected and potentially productive part of the scientific process,” the researchers write.
“Whatever the outcome of the dialogue, what matters is that it occurs… In doing so, we can only become more effective at communicating the results of our work, and the wonder associated with it.”
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