The discovery and characterization of exoplanets have the potential to offer the world one of the most impactful findings ever in the history of astronomy—the identification of life beyond Earth. Life can be inferred by the presence of atmospheric biosignature gases—gases produced by life that can accumulate to detectable levels in an exoplanet atmosphere. Detection will be made by remote sensing by sophisticated space telescopes. The conviction that biosignature gases will actually be detected in the future is moderated by lessons learned from the dozens of exoplanet atmospheres studied in last decade, namely the difficulty in robustly identifying molecules, the possible interference of clouds, and the permanent limitations from a spectrum of spatially unresolved and globally mixed gases without direct surface observations. The vision for the path to assess the presence of life beyond Earth is being established.
Sara Seager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology