Browse Publications Technical Papers 2003-01-2668
2003-07-07

Searching for Alien Life Having Unearthly Biochemistry 2003-01-2668

The search for alien life in the solar system should include exploring unearthlike environments for life having an unearthly biochemistry. We expect alien life to conform to the same basic chemical and ecological constraints as terrestrial life, since inorganic chemistry and the laws of ecosystems appear to be universal. Astrobiologists usually assume alien life will use familiar terrestrial biochemistry and therefore hope to find alien life by searching near water or by supplying hydrocarbons. The assumption that alien life is likely to be based on carbon and water is traditional and plausible. It justifies high priority for missions to search for alien life on Mars and Europa, but it unduly restricts the search for alien life. Terrestrial carbon-water biochemistry is not possible on most of the bodies of our solar system, but all alien life is not necessarily based on terrestrial biochemistry. If alien life has a separate origin from Earth life, and if can survive in an environment extremely different from Earth's, then alien life may have unearthly biochemistry. There may be other solvents than water that support alien life and other elements than carbon that form complex life enabling chain molecules. Rather than making the exploration-restricting assumption that all life requires carbon, water, and terrestrial biochemistry, we should make the exploration-friendly assumption that indigenous, environmentally adapted, alien life forms might flourish using unearthly biochemistry in many places in the solar system. Alien life might be found wherever there is free energy and a physical/chemical system capable of using that energy to build living structures. Alien life may be discovered by the detection of some general non-equilibrium chemistry rather than of terrestrial biochemistry. We should explore all the potential abodes of life in the solar system, including those where life based on terrestrial biochemistry can not exist.

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