Astrobiology is the study of life in a planetary context, looking at its origin, evolution and presence on Earth as well as beyond. It is an exciting, interdisciplinary field combining chemistry, astrophysics, geology, biology and even philosophy to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds and help recognize biospheres that might be different from that on Earth.
The name Astrobiology, first proposed by the Russian astronomer Gavriil Tikhov in 1953, is now used globally in place of similar earlier names, that included Exobiology and Xenobiology. The history of astrobiology is intimately linked with the human exploration of space. During the early days of space exploration the possibility of contaminating another planet with Earth’s life (forward contamination) as well as bringin extraterrestrial life back to Earth (backward contamination) became a rising concern. The possibility of contamination, especially forward contamination, is very real and has the potential to hinder future discoveries on life’s current or past presence. These ideas were quickly grouped together with hypothesis and speculation regarding life’s presence in the universe, the possibility of its existence and emergence.
Earth rises. The Earth rising on the Moon’s horizon.
This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). The oval features are cyclones, up to 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) in diameter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles
Today all space missions are under very strict biological protocols aimed at protecting planets and life in space, collectively termed Planetary Protection, and managed by the NASA Office for Planetary Protection.
Today Astrobiology is a vibrant field of research. A quick search on the internet will give you an idea of the breadth of different projects and disciplines involved. Enquiries go from the origin of life on our planet to the use of Earth extreme environments as planetary analogs to prepare for future space missions.