Astrobiology research sponsored by NASA focuses on three basic questions: How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? How do we search for life in the Universe? Over the past 50 years, astrobiologists have uncovered myriad clues to answering these Big Questions.
Since the astrobiology community published its last Astrobiology Roadmap in 2008, research in the field has focused more and more on the link between the “astro” and the “bio” in astrobiology—that is, what makes a planetary body habitable. “Habitability” has become a major buzzword in astrobiology as researchers have learned more about extraterrestrial environments in our Solar System and beyond and deepened their understanding of how and when the early Earth became habitable.
Why is Earth habitable? How, when, and why did it become habitable? Are, or were, any other bodies in our Solar System habitable? Might planets orbiting other stars be habitable? What sorts of stars are most likely to have habitable planets? These are just a few of the questions that astrobiologists are trying to answer today.
In preparing this new science strategy, hundreds of members of the astrobiology community collaborated in an intensive process of defining goals and objectives for astrobiology research moving forward. The community identified six major topics of research in the field today:
- Identifying abiotic sources of organic compounds
- Synthesis and function of macromolecules in the origin of life
- Early life and increasing complexity
- Co-evolution of life and the physical environment
- Identifying, exploring, and characterizing environments for habitability and biosignatures
- Constructing habitable worlds
This 2015 Astrobiology Strategy identifies questions to guide and inspire astrobiology research on each of these topics—in the lab, in the field, and in experiments flown on planetary science missions—over the next decade. The strategy also identifies major ongoing challenges that astrobiologists tackle as they attempt to answer these universal questions.
2018 NASEM Astrobiology Strategy
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released An Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe on October 10, 2018. Requested by NASA, this study offers a science strategy for astrobiology that outlines key scientific questions, identifies the most promising research in the field, and indicates the extent to which the mission priorities in existing decadal surveys address the search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe. This report makes recommendations for advancing the research, obtaining the measurements, and realizing NASA’s goal to search for signs of life in the universe.