“Astrobiology,” the word itself conjures images of analyzing aliens on some red-skied moon orbiting a gas giant. However, in the 21st century, astrobiology does not meet these sci-fi visions. In order to realize these dreams, what question must a 21st century astrobiologist focus on? NASA defines Astrobiology as, “the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.” If the ultimate end goal of Astrobiology is to answer each of the definition’s four parts, then the most important question would be identifying the origin of life on Earth. Identifying the origin of life would help pave the way to studying all of the other aspects of astrobiology.
As humans, our species is ~3.5 billion years removed from the first life form, yet we still share some of its genetic material. Over those eons of time, our species slowly evolved into the beings we are today: beings that can contemplate where we first came from. Evolution is the change of a species’ characteristics over generations, giving rise to a diversity of species as they adapt to their environment. The entire biosphere of this planet evolved out of a single form of life. By discovering the origin of life, we can trace the course of evolution from its first step.
Our species peers out into the depths of space looking for the answer to the question, Are we alone? Understanding the origin of life on Earth is also understanding how life could form elsewhere in universe. Once we understand how life originated on Earth, we can then use that information to look for life on other worlds where conditions are similar. Right now, the search for life on other planets casts a wide net in hope of finding galactic neighbors, but answering the question of where we came from will help us to at least throw that net in a more likely location.
Finally, the future of life in the universe begins with humanity coming to terms with how amazing life is, because if we do not appreciate it, then we have no hope of seeing the future. Astrobiology has a unique opportunity, a chance to provide the human race the key to the origin of all life on Earth. Realizing the origin of life through astrobiology can tell us where we all came from, the history of all life that led to us, and how special we are in the universe. All we need to do to obtain that key to life is to find the origin of life, and with it, hopefully humanity will be part of the future of life in the universe.