Finding alien life on planet Earth is a precursor to finding it in outer space. A leader in this search is Penny Boston, the new director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. Established in 1998, the Institute provides a scientific framework for space missions while promoting the field of astrobiology, the study of the origins and distribution of life in the universe.
Boston’s roots are both in science and the natural world. She is a cave scientist who explores subsurface caves and mines (human-created caves). She also serves on NASA’s Planetary Protection subcommittee, a group that follows international treaties to protect the solar system by not contaminating other planets or bringing organisms back to earth.
How does spelunking aid in the search for alien life? Caves are filled with unique life forms and NASA’s goal is to use these as a guide to its exploration for alien life in the universe.
Boston’s favorite cave exploration sites is the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia because it offers a glimpse of alien life without leaving Earth. Unexplored caves with dive-able pools team with life that hasn’t seen the surface for years and is much like an alien planet. It offers a unique area for scientists to study geochemistry and mineralogy.
There’s an entire hidden part of the planet that we don’t think about. The rock fracture habitat goes down to 5 kilometers, maybe down to 10 and is thoroughly infested with life forms … In the surface world, there are so many different ways of making a living. Surface life has photosynthesis, but subsurface only a tiny fraction of that energy trickles down. Not a lot of organisms are using organic material, they are processing minerals from rock they live in.
These organisms may be a model for other life forms on moons and/or planets. Prime candidates for such life are Mars, Saturn’s icy moon Encelades and Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
Life is very good at making itself more orderly on the inside than outside. Life is like an entropy exporting machine, it keeps thermodynamics contained. Life takes energy from one form to another from the environment and uses it to make structures. But the details of the chemistry may or may not resemble us. I think organisms probably have an inside and an outside, so they’re probably distinguishable from their surroundings. There may be life that lives on very different timescales, organisms that are very slow in their growth patterns. Thinking deeply about the fundamentals of what makes life life helps to inform us about how to go look for it.”
Yes, ET phone home, if you aren’t already here.