Astrobiology: The Coolest Field You’ve Never Heard Of
By Tasman Rosenfeld
August 05, 2020 · 5 minute read
Astrobiology… is that, like, the study of aliens and stuff? Well, actually, yeah. Unlike its pseudoscience cousin, UFOlogy (yes, that actually exists), astrobiology is a well-respected and bonafide academic discipline. It’s the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life through the universe. Per the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s website, astrobiologists seek to answer questions like “How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? How do we search for life in the Universe?” In other words, astrobiology seeks the answers to some of the existential questions that have nagged at H. sapiens’ minds since we first started looking to the stars on the African savannas.
You might be wondering how an astrobiologist goes about trying to investigate such seemingly immense issues, and the truth is that there isn’t a rigid roadmap for that. There are so many angles to the problem of searching for life beyond Earth, and thus it takes teams with diverse interests and expertise to tackle them. Understanding the origins of life here on Earth is not only of immense importance to humanity but will inform us about the kinds of planets and bodies in space on which we could expect to find life.
Geochemists, microbiologists, paleontologists, geobiologists, ecologists, geophysicists, organic chemists, and evolutionary biologists worldwide have assembled to tackle these questions, and they’ve made great strides in piecing together how old life is and the kinds of conditions that were conducive to its genesis. Astronomers, chemists, planetary scientists, and engineers have synthesized these findings into methods for identifying the signatures of life or the resources it needs (energy and a liquid solvent, AKA water) remotely through analyzing the spectra of atmospheres beyond our solar system. As you can see, no matter your background or interests in STEM, you too can join the astrobiology party.
Most astrobiologists are focused on and hopeful about finding microbial life in space. A recent study estimates that there are roughly a trillion different species of microbes here on Earth (Locey and Lennon 2016). Even older, more conservative estimates put that number in the millions (Curtis et al. 2002). Any way you cut it, complicated life, such as animals, plants, and fungi, make up just a small fraction of the diversity on our planet. On the other hand, some astrobiologists think that it might be easier to find life if they’re looking for us too. These researchers work on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—SETI for short—by trying to use radio telescopes to intersect signals, broadcast intentionally or not, from other technologically advanced species. Regardless of whether finding simple life or highly advanced life is more likely, most of us would probably agree that making contact with intelligent aliens would be pretty exciting, if also terrifying to some.
Of course, with Elon Musk’s plans for a colony on Mars, the issue of life on the Red Planet is more relevant than ever. Is there current life on Mars? As far as we know, probably not. Was there in the past? Astrobiologists are working that one out. NASA’s newest Mars rovers, Curiosity, and the recently launched Perseverance, were sent to analyze surface rocks and hunt for water and organics in them. Check out the animation below to see how Perseverance will collect samples once it lands.
It hopefully won’t be too much longer before scientists will suit up and head over themselves for the ultimate field paleontology expedition. As important and intriguing as it is to send probes and humans to other worlds, it ultimately raises an important question: How do we prevent bringing our Earthling microbes to another world, where they could invade endemic ecosystems or change the course of evolution on another planet? Just as importantly, how do we protect our astronauts and prevent them from bringing an alien contagion back home to Earth? I bring this up issue of planetary protection only to highlight that astrobiologists make their living solving problems that previously alone lived in the imaginations of sci-fi writers and the fans of their works. Trekkie or not, you’ve got to admit that it is so insanely cool.
At this point in the article, you may be wondering how you yourself can become an astrobiologist. Read on. Currently, there’s only one undergraduate degree in astrobiology in the United States. The fact is, though, that astrobiology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields in existence. While a Bachelor’s degree in Geology, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Astronomy might be the most traditional route, any STEM degree should help you get where you need to go. You’re likely to need to go to graduate school for at least a Master’s degree, but there you can begin to narrow down your research focus within astrobiology. Your career will be academic, probably working for NASA or another country’s space agency, a University, or an independent research institute like SETI Institute. But because there’s so much collaboration between different institutions and people with different interests, you’d surely find your place. Cognitive scientist? Help SETI researchers define intelligence and guide them on how to look for it. Love engineering and robotics? Design the next generation of probes headed for Jupiter’s moons. Have a non-STEM degree in art, media, or communications? Be the one that figures out the best way to announce the discovery of aliens to the world. The Universe is your oyster.
If you’re interested in learning more about astrobiology, I highly suggest that you start by purchasing and reading Jim Al-Khalili's book titled “Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life.” Want more career advice? Here’s NASA’s page on astrobiology career-path suggestions. Of course, be sure to check out the other resources available to you right here at SciTeens. Make an account, match with a mentor, and start a project—maybe even one relevant to astrobiology!
Tasman Rosenfeld is one of the co-founders of SciTeens and studies paleontology and geobiology at Yale University. He has been in love with hunting for salamanders and aliens his whole life. Connect with him about either thing: firstname.lastname@example.org or @tasmaster (Instagram)
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