Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth. With this privileged potential comes responsibility. The magnitude of the question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and the public interest therein, opens the possibility that results may be taken to imply more than the observations support, or than the observers intend. As life-detection objectives become increasingly prominent in space sciences, it is essential to open a community dialogue about how to convey information in a subject matter that is diverse, complicated and has a high potential to be sensationalized. Establishing best practices for communicating about life detection can serve to set reasonable expectations on the early stages of a hugely challenging endeavour, attach value to incremental steps along the path, and build public trust by making clear that false starts and dead ends are an expected and potentially productive part of the scientific process.From the Abstract of Call for a framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth by James Green, Tori Hoehler, Marc Neveu, Shawn Domagal-Goldman, Daniella Scalice & Mary Voytek
Realistically, our generation could be the one that discovers evidence of extraterrestrial life. Can you imagine? We have a rover that is currently cruising Mars looking for signs of ancient life. We have promising studies from a new class of planets, called the Hycean, potentially habitable, hot, with hydrogen-rich atmospheres and vast oceans, and a British team is looking for “bio-signatures”, namely the molecules that act as traces of life, right now. Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan stated that “the Hycean planets open a whole new path in our search for life in the universe. We have focused on Earth-like planets, which is a reasonable starting point. But we think the Hycean planets offer a better chance of finding different traces of bio-signatures. It would transform our understanding of life in the universe. We need to be open about where we expect to find life and what form it might take, as nature continues to surprise us in ways that are often unimaginable. “
When extraterrestrial life will manifest itself to us, humans, it can do so in various ways.
It could happen through a message picked up by a radio telescope, a sign of life caught in the ocean under the icy crust of Europa (satellite of Jupiter), or thanks to evidence of fossil bacteria in the Martian crust or in a meteorite. In short, the possibilities are many.
How would such an epochal discovery be announced to the rest of the world?
“Call for a framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth” is an article published in Nature by some NASA researchers that proposes guidelines on how to tell the world about such an important discovery.
It can practically be assumed that the evidence will not come in the form of little green men landing on our planet. Rather, we should expect extraterrestrial life to reveal itself only in successive and prolonged phases. Green points out that this concept should be well explained to the public. In other words: it is quite unlikely that one day we will categorically announce “we have discovered aliens!”, but it is more likely that it will be a progressive effort, which will reflect the way how science proceeds. This premise is essential above all in the case of “false alarms”, in which it will be necessary to correct one’s declarations.
Each result pursued will require the involvement of scientists, technologists, and media who will confront each other first of all to establish what are the objective evidence that will allow us to affirm that we are indeed facing extraterrestrial life forms and, secondly, to determine which is the best way to communicate this evidence. This whole mechanism, the study reads, should be designed now, before extraterrestrial life is detected, to avoid fretting when the time comes.
The working group proposes a sort of scale called Confidence of Life Detection (CoLD) which contains seven levels: the lowest (1 and 2) focus on the initial identification of potential “bio-signatures”, for example, chemical elements, physical structures, or activities consistent with biological origin. Steps 3 and 4 focus on studying the environment around the bio-signatures, to verify if it is actually “habitable”, if a biological explanation is the best and the only one or if there are other possible explanations.
The higher levels of the scale imply the confirmation of the initial result with independent tests and the rejection of alternative hypotheses developed by the community specifically to give an answer to the initial result. If everyone involved (from scientists to the media to the public) is familiar with this scale, then there will be widespread awareness that any single result could be canceled at any time.
The last step would be the most difficult to accomplish, especially when considering the potential outcomes of the current missions. NASA’s Perseverance Rover is equipped with all kinds of instruments that would allow it to detect life up to level 5. It will then be necessary to analyze the samples returned to Earth to reach level 6 and reaching level 7 could lead to further investigation of other places on Mars.
The CoLD scale, however, may not be the definitive one, but what is important, is opening a dialogue on this topic now because when the time comes to announce the discovery, the results of the work can be communicated more effectively and timely.