Astrobiologists meet to better their search for exoplanet life

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The uncertainty of science: Astrobiologists are meeting this week in Seattle to discuss and refine their methods for detecting astrobiology on exoplanets.

The Seattle meeting aims to compile a working list of biosignature gases and their chemical properties. The information will feed into how astronomers analyse data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018. The telescope will be able to look at only a handful of habitable planets, but it will provide the first detailed glimpse of what gases surround which world, says Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

No single gas is likely to be a slam-dunk indicator of alien life. But Domagal-Goldman hopes that the workshop will produce a framework for understanding where scientists could trip themselves up. “We don’t want to have a great press release,” he says, “and then a week later have egg on everybody’s faces.”

A few years ago I was told by one astronomer that the field’s biggest and most exciting area of research in the coming decades will be the effort to study the thousands exoplanets they only just discovered. I agree. The Webb telescope might have been built to study cosmology, but the data it will produce about exoplanets will be much more real and less uncertain, thus making it more compelling and convincing.

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