AbSciCon 2019: Detecting Agnostic Biosignatures on Other Planets

At the end of 2018, Dr. Andy Ellington and Dr. Eric Anslyn from the University of Texas at Austin, among 13 other scientists, were awarded a grant from NASA totaling nearly $7 million to continue research in detecting extraterrestrial life. This comes as a part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, which is working to find life on neighboring planets using what’s called LAB, the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures. In June 2019, Dr. Ellington and Dr. Anslyn attended AbSciCon, NASA’s Astrobiology Conference, and discussed efforts to detect these “agnostic biosignatures of life”. 

“The signals we are looking for are chemicals that are so complex that they could only have been created by some form of life,” says Dr. Anslyn. Really, any type of signature could be possible, although proteins and nucleic acids like that of humans are unlikely. “Since we don’t know what type of signal to expect, we need an agnostic method to detect life,” he further explains.

NASA also announced its “Dragonfly Mission” and presented the mission’s commander at AbSciCon 2019. Dragonfly’s goal is to create a probe that will launch in 15 years to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, will take 8 additional years to reach its destination, and look for hints of life. While NASA is working to engineer this complex machinery, Dr. Ellington, Dr. Anslyn, and others are working together to develop chemical tests that NASA’s machinery would implement. In the near future, we hope to discover more about our neighboring planets, and what inhabits them.

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