Using five gravitational assists, the interplanetary probe JUICE, short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, is expected to skim by Europa in late-2029, in preparation for one of the top flagship missions of the century: the Europa Lander.
Below a solid layer of ice convection at the subsurface, a global saltwater ocean is almost certain to exist within the icy moon of Europa. It could be the only habitable celestial body of its kind in our solar system.
Other missions throughout the rest of this century targeting the origins of life include the Tianwen-1, Perseverance, the Enceladus Life Finder, and Dragonfly. Two natural satellites corresponding with these future missions, Enceladus and Titan, could also contain subsurface bodies of water.
Since the origination of astrobiology in the late 1990s, many in the scientific community are keen on understanding the societal implications on future findings that could answer life’s paradigm of existential questions.
And the upcoming missions over the next decade or so could aggrandize the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology, implicating more academic disciplines in the systematic enterprise of science.
The Origins of Life
In 2020, no findings have been released to the general public confirming the existence of habitability or biosignatures beyond the Blue Marble. The furthest a rover has ever entered the atmosphere of another planetary object occurred on the Venusian surface during the height of the Space Race in the Cold War-era.
Back in the 1960s, the Soviet Union set a number of landmarks in space exploration with its Venera program. Its missions to the Venusian surface established the first human-made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet and the first landing of a rover with recorded sounds on another planetary object.
In recent years, however, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) have shifted their focal point on the search for traces of life toward the Red Planet, 0.8 astronomical units from the Venusian surface.
On Mars, the concept of habitability is limited to certain conditions that enable life. Planetary evolution, genomic mutations, ecological successions, and solar system dynamics are all pivotal in comprehending the hypothetical emergence of life on the Martian surface.
If any evidence of biosignatures were to emerge within future missions, on Mars or even Europa, popular notions such as the interplanetary panspermia and the metabolism first hypothesis, would likely become the subject of vigorous research.
Directed panspermia, like what occurred as a result of the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander, might explain the distribution of microorganisms within our solar system.
As part of the metabolism first hypothesis, however, prebiotic life on Earth is purported to have originated on the seafloor in hydrothermal vents. High-temperature vents on the seabed may have induced the organic molecules and ingredients that enabled life.
“There is a lot of speculation that hydrothermal vents could be the location where life on Earth began,” said Nora de Leeuw, the co-author of a study published in the journal Chemical Communications.
“There is a lot of CO2 dissolved in the water, which could provide the carbon that the chemistry of living organisms is based on, and there is plenty of energy, because the water is hot and turbulent. What our research proves is that these vents also have the chemical properties that encourage these molecules to recombine into molecules usually associated with living organisms,” Leeuw concluded in her findings.
The emanation of hydrothermal vents as a plausible explanation of chemical precursors to life on Earth could aid in the search for life on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. The icy moon’s hypothetical oceanic floor may contain hydrothermal systems, similar to that on Earth.
But regardless of where biosignatures may be uncovered outside of the Blue Marble, it is imperative that societal implications associated with such findings be taken into consideration. The discovery of life on Europa, for instance, would be a game-changer for nearly all scientific disciplines.
Astrobiological Findings and Implications
The elucidation and interpretation of astrobiological findings to diverse audiences mandate the acknowledgment of disaccord, which may precipitate implications to the understanding and adoption of such discoveries.
For future research, as interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work expands, maintaining support is vital. The implementation of credible experts in various complementary disciplines, who can add contextual aspects of astrobiological findings with respect to their scientific domain, would take the interdisciplinary field toward a unification of knowledge.
Continued efforts to consider ethical, educational, historical, theological, psychological, and sociological implications of astrobiological research have been an increasing interest in the scientific community. And will be on the steady surge, especially over the next several years.