New Data May Help Identify Extraterrestrial Life

While we do not know what extraterrestrial life will look like until we find them, we do know that our own planet is filled with a seemingly endless variety of lifeforms. A group of international scientists are using this knowledge to promote exploration of alien life.

The paper was published in the March 16th edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and will help astronomers identify exoplanets (those outside of our Solar System) that may harbor extraterrestrial life.

“This database gives us the first glimpse at what diverse worlds out there could look like. We looked at a broad set of life forms, including some from the most extreme parts of Earth,” says Lisa Kaltenegger, director of the Institute for Pale Blue Dots based at Cornell University.

The group also consists of lead writer Siddharth Hegde from the Max Planck Institute, and a trio of biologists from NASA’s Ames Research Center. The team hopes that with the advent of greater telescopes, the ability to detect extraterrestrial life will be made easier with their catalog.

The collection of images is based on the concept of reflection signatures. Imagine that an alien astronomer points her telescope at Earth; the abundance of green vegetation will give a tint that is peculiar to Earth. This is because plants take in certain types of light while reflecting other. Had another type of organism come to dominate our planet, we may well have a different reflection signature.

We can use this data to make solid assumption about what exoplanets might harbor. The team brought together cultures from 137 different lifeforms, many of which are from extreme environments. Those chose these extremophiles from a wide variety of places to represent the wide ranges of possible situations on the large number of exoplanets to be studied.

Microbes were taken from all over the Earth, and you can view the full set at Cornell’s website here.

While Earth has a particular type of climate, there does exist niches where these extremophiles live. Imagine trying to make your way through the barren climate of Pluto – impossible for us but not necessarily for these hardy microbes, some of which are used to living in environments of intense pressure or heat.

If this or that microbe has the stuff to proliferate, the teams catalog can be used to determine what type of microbe it most likely is, simply by comparing it to those on Earth.

You can read the full article here, at the National Academy website.