AI Deemed The Holy Grail Of Astrobiology Can Detect Alien Life With 90% Accuracy.

hero nasa mars perseverance rover
A group of researchers have shared what is being called the "holy grail of astrobiology," which they say can reliably detect signs of past or present life on other planets. The news of the research comes on the heels of NASA's successful OSIRIS-REx mission that returned the first asteroid sample collected in space.

NASA recently received an update from an independent review board that found several severe issues regarding the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission effort. Some problems involve the mission's timetable, price tag, and technical details. Where this leaves the space agency in terms of a sample return is uncertain, but one thing that remains true is the monumental scientific promise the mission holds.

In a recent publication, a seven-member team led by Jim Cleaves and Robert Hazen of the Carnegie Institution for Science reported that their new AI-based method can distinguish modern and ancient biological samples from those of abiotic origin with 90 percent accuracy.

"This routine analytical method has the potential to revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life and deepen our understanding of both the origin and chemistry of the earliest life on Earth," remarked Dr. Hazen. "It opens the way to using smart sensors on robotic spacecraft, landers and rovers to search for signs of life before the samples return to Earth."

perseverance rover hole drilled in martian surface
A hole drilled in Martian rock in preparation for the Perseverance's first attempt to collect a sample.

Before it is tested on a new rover sent to another planet, the new test could unveil the history of ancient rocks on Earth and possibly that of samples already collected by the Mars Curiosity rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. These latter tests could potentially be conducted using an onboard analytical instrument called "SAM" (for Sample Analysis at Mars).

"We'll need to tweak our method to match SAM's protocols, but it's possible that we already have data in hand to determine if there are molecules on Mars from an organic Martian biosphere," added Dr. Hazen.

Cleaves acknowledges that searching for extraterrestrial life is one of the most "tantalizing endeavors in modern science." He added that the innovative analytical method his team devised does not merely rely on identifying a specific molecule or group of compounds in a sample. Instead, the research demonstrated that AI can "differentiate biotic from abiotic samples by detecting subtle differences within a sample's molecular patterns as revealed by pyrolysis gas chromatography analysis, followed by mass spectrometry."

nasa mars curiosity rover
NASA's Mars Curiosity rover.

During testing, the AI-based method was able to successfully identify samples that had originated from living things, such as modern shells, teeth, bones, insects, leaves, rice, human hair, and cells preserved in fine-grained rock, from remnants of ancient life altered by geological processing, such as oil, coal, and amber, from samples with abiotic origins, such as pure laboratory chemicals and carbon-rich meteorites.

Dr. Hazen said of the team's AI-based method, "These results mean that we may be able to find a lifeform from another planet, another biosphere, even if it is very different from the life we know on Earth. And, if we do find signs of life elsewhere, we can tell if life on Earth and other planets derived from a common or different origin."