NASA Wants to Prepare for Extraterrestrial Discoveries

NASA Wants to Prepare for Extraterrestrial Discoveries

( – Are we alone in the universe? It’s an age-old question the human race still can’t really answer. While scientists believe planets such as Mars might contain the right ingredients to support life, they have yet to conclusively prove the existence of actual aliens in our solar system. Still, one team at NASA says it shouldn’t stop the world from determining the best way to respond to the detection of alien life if and when the day arrives.

NASA Calls for First Contact Framework

In an article first published on NASA’s website on October 27, Senior Communications Specialist, Elizabeth Landau, asks two deceptively simple questions. What should qualify as a reliable or significant finding in extraterrestrial research, and when will we be able to conclusively prove that alien life definitely exists?

Questions like these prompted Chief Scientist Jim Green and a handful of his colleagues to publish a recent call to action in the multidisciplinary science journal Nature. They feel scientists must start collaborating on a framework for responding to new data before misinterpretations lead people to take findings out of context.

A Progressive Scale for Sharing Information

Green’s article suggests researchers and communicators follow a progressive seven-step scale that would “inform, not persuade; offer balance, not false balance; disclose uncertainties; state evidence quality; and inoculate against misinformation.” This framework would also give scientists a viable path forward the moment they make a discovery.

  • Level 1: Experts report on all findings that hint at potential signatures of life (e.g., the presence of water on Mars).
  • Level 2: Scientists investigate and rule out common influences that might skew evidence, such as the contamination of tools from Earth.
  • Level 3: Scientists compare potential biological signals with those found on Earth in the most similar environment available (e.g., Mars vs. an ancient riverbed).
  • Level 4: Scientists rule out potential interference from non-biological sources, such as chemical reactions or previously identified anomalies.
  • Level 5: Scientists confirm and report on additional and fully independent biological signals (e.g., the discovery of other molecules that support life).
  • Level 6: Scientists collaborate and actively share information on biological signals, ruling out alternative explanations.
  • Level 7: Continued collaboration and exploration leads multiple scientists to independently discover and conclude that life does, in fact, exist.

The ultimate goal, here, is to moderate how the scientific community shares information about its findings. Rather than attempting to race to the top and be the “first” entity or individual to prove extraterrestrial life exists, as is so often witnessed in the space race, researchers are encouraged to work together to follow the scientific method.

Will We Even Recognize Life?

Jim Green’s team also draws attention to an age-old yet still crucial point: there’s no guarantee the human race would even be able to recognize extraterrestrial life if and when we find it. “Life” could look very different on Kepler-B than the carbon-based creatures we’re familiar with here on Earth. Would we even be able to recognize a silicon-based lifeform or energy being from another world?

That’s precisely where Green’s seven-point scale comes in. By the time any one entity or researcher achieves a seventh-level discovery, they’ve not only collaborated with many colleagues on the scientific process but also gathered multiple forms of evidence along the way. That makes the eventual announcement of life on other planets even more reliable.

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