Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of extraterrestrial life. This interdisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry, etc.
In 2007, a few graduate students at the National University of Colombia grew interested in astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life. Their professors dismissed the field, telling the students it was not a serious science, but the young researchers could not be dissuaded. They formed their own interdisciplinary group, Instituto de Astrobiologia Colombia (IAC), without any faculty support, and dove in to both research and educational endeavours.
Researchers involved in astrobiology are not hacks or fanatics searching the universe for the likes of Yoda and ET. Usually, they are physicists or biologists, though an increasing number of chemists, geologists, oceanographers, and engineers are joining astrobiologists’ ranks. Yes, their ambitions are lofty: to examine the origin, nature, evolution, and future of life in the universe, including life on Earth.
Dramatic improvements in technology are speeding up the search. Recent star surveys indicate that planetary systems—very likely including many Earth-like planets—are common throughout the Milky Way and the rest of the universe. And the latest explorations of our own planet demonstrate that life can exist in a much wider range of environments than anyone previously thought.
Soon after this first attempt [to contact other worlds], Drake came up with the celebrated Drake equation, which became the fundamental organizing principle for the new cross-disciplinary field of astrobiology. The equation looked at all the factors determining how many (if any) detectable extraterrestrial societies are out there.
Tullis Onstott, a geologist at Princeton University who specializes in astrobiology, makes an ambitious prediction. “In the next 15 years,” he says, “we will likely discover life on an exoplanet near us.” Scientists have long predicted the discovery of extraterrestrial life, but [they] have good reason to be optimistic. Researchers are devoting more resources to the search for alien life than ever before, and they are getting some enticing results.
From the point of view of astrobiology and the search for life elsewhere, planetary bodies remain the primary, critical, target. There are simply no other environments in the cosmos that offer the same potential for diverse and complex chemistry in multiple phases of matter, and the potential for such long-term equilibrium.
The environment of Lake Vostok, which Russian scientists are about to drill open, is very similar to [Enceladus] and to Enceladus, a frozen satellite of Saturn. Astrobiologists are among those eager to uncover Lake Vostok’s Miocene-era secrets.
The Vatican's interest in extraterrestrial life began last year, when Father Jose Gabriel Funes, the chief papal astronomer and a Jesuit priest, announced that the existence of alien life does not contradict the Bible. This revelation opened up a wide range of theological implications, including the possibility of aliens who don't need salvation, since their ancestors didn't commit original sin in the Garden of Eden.
Human beings are, on an astronomical timescale, recent arrivals—and when you first arrive in the neighbourhood, it is only polite to say hello to the neighbours. That, at least, is the attitude of the SETI Institute. SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and that search has been going on, in various institutional guises, since 1960.
The majority of stars in the sky will end their lives as planetary nebulae which are characterized by a hot, UV emitting central star surrounded by its ejected circumstellar envelope. It was previously thought that there would not be any appreciable molecular content in this environment due to the extreme UV radiation emanating from the central star. However, studies...suggest that a number of molecules survive into this stage, even in the oldest planetary nebulae, such as the Helix.