For the first time in human history, we have the technology and expertise to search for life in the ancient rock record of nearby planets—but the challenges involved will require multidisciplinary expertise and innovation. The path to life detection and its confirmation is long and arduous, and may include dead ends, but this hardly discourages our desire to know our place in the universe. As reports of life detection become more commonplace, the community has an increasing need for a standard protocol for assessing claims of life detection and ensuring they are as scientifically robust as possible. Furthermore, life detection is a popular topic in the media, and there is not yet a standard protocol for communicating our confidence in these detections to the eager public, and clearly explaining the steps ahead. In July, a broad cross-section of the astrobiology community convened to start the process of tackling these difficult challenges.
NExSS and NfoLD hosted a joint virtual workshop to discuss the best practices for developing biosignature standards of evidence and reporting protocols. The workshop attendees spanned a wide range of expertise across scientific disciplines, which was key to developing protocols that are generally applicable to a suite of different techniques for life detection.
Central discussion topics focused on the development of a protocol that starts at the point when a researcher or team thinks they might have detected a biosignature, and how to map the protocol to a confidence scale that is both useful to scientists and understandable to the public. The framework—the structure of which is still under discussion—will stress interdisciplinary collaboration. A strong emphasis was placed on transparency: potential biosignatures need to be validated early and often by other groups to test their credibility, and the public should be kept informed of the process. A community-endorsed biosignature confidence scale—applicable to both in-situ and remote sensing detections—would provide scientists, reporters, and the public with a straightforward metric to accurately understand what will likely be a complex detection.
The overall goal of the workshop was to record key points from the community discussions in a white paper draft that will be made available for broader community comment in November, and transmitted to NASA HQ in early December. The workshop successfully catalyzed community interaction on these topics, and with continuous input and improvements from the broader community, a framework built around these principals will set the standard for assessment of future biosignature detections.