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Astrophysics 25 Oct 2017

Robots, astronauts and other experiments to discover the origins of life

We know there are planets of a size similar to the Earth and at a distance from their sun that make them inhabitable. It´s also possible that there are vestiges of life on Mars, in the ice-covered oceans covered of Europa – a satellite of Jupiter – or on Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn. Sending spaceships manned by robots to study the solar system, recreating the conditions of life on Mars inside a mine, or trying to reproduce a living organism in a laboratory – as Dan Brown relates in his latest bestseller – are some of the scientific experiments that are now being performed to solve the enigma of the origin of life.

In the last 20 years, astronomers have discovered that many planets orbit around stars similar to our sun. It´s not possible to observe them directly, but their presence is revealed by the effects they have on their star, such as the movement in the orbit produced by the gravity of the planet or the change in the shine of the sun when the planet passes before it.

These small indications are detected by long-range telescopes such as NASA’s Kepler telescope. However, these devices do not have sufficient power and only allow us to see the shadow of the planets.

Although new and more powerful telescopes are being developed for use in space and on earth, they won´t be able to obtain irrefutable proof of the existence of life on other planets, since the data they collect won´t be easy to interpret. “The principal obstacle is the possibility that life on other planets may be very different and may interact with its environment in unexpected ways,” says Dimitar Sasselov, tenured professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a researcher on the Kepler Mission. “This would make it very difficult for us to understand the data.”

Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University, agrees with Sasselov that the first step in searching for life on other planets is to send spacecraft and robots to neighboring worlds such as Mars, Europa and Enceladus, where evidence of water has been found.

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In the book, “The Next Step: Exponential Life,” which can be downloaded for free on the website of BBVA’s OpenMind project, Rees says the time has come for machines to make the first interplanetary voyages and to prepare the path that humans could travel in the future.

That position is supported by Mark McCaughrean, scientific consultant of the European Space Agency (ESA), who adds that one of the advantages of putting technology into orbit first is that it can be correctly sterilized, while humans can not. Man´s arrival on Mars could affect the ecosystem of the Red Planet in unexpected ways, perhaps even putting an end to the life that may be there.

Earthly experiments to find life outside of the Earth

In the event these robotic pioneers on Mars were to find the necessary conditions for establishing human settlements, probably the most suitable environments for doing so would be lava tubes or caverns. For this reason, some 30-odd scientists and astronauts from around the world are testing tools and outer space sampling techniques in similar environments, such as a mine in the United Kingdom, situated one kilometer below the earth´s crust.

The research carried out in the north of England will continue during the month of November in the volcanic tunnels on Lanzarote, in Spain´s Canary Islands. The ESA’s Pangea campaign will take 50 people to the island, from four space agencies that will carry out a total of 14 experiments.

McCaughrean and Sasselov also agree that another of the fundamental questions for understanding the origin of life, and its possible existence in other places in the universe, is understanding the biochemical processes from which it arises. To do so, Sasselov has founded the Origins of Life Initiative at Harvard University, an institute where biologists, chemists and astronomers collaborate in an attempt to reproduce a living organism, by simulating planetary conditions in a laboratory. A similar experiment – carried out by Miller and Urey in 1953 – is one of the sources of inspiration for Origin, Dan Brown’s latest novel.

The frontiers of science move quickly and we could find life beyond the Earth sooner than we think. According to Sasselov, if that were the case, we would experience “a new Copernican revolution,” as transcendental as the first one, which removed the Earth as the center of the universe and completely transformed our perception of the cosmos. For the Harvard astronomer, at the end of the day it´s a search motivated by the most profound and characteristic desire of humanity: our need to move about and explore.

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