What is Astrobiology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Astrobiology is the study of the potential for life beyond the confines of planet Earth. It incorporates several scientific disciplines, including biology, chemistry, astrology, and geology. Several colleges and universities have astrobiology programs, for people who wish to focus on the study of this branch of the sciences, and astrobiology is also studied at agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Outer space.
Outer space.

In the scientific community, there is some debate over astrobiology. Some researchers feel that people should be focusing on life on Earth, as well as the problems faced by organisms on Earth, rather than on the potential for life beyond the confines of Earth. Others look down their noses at astrobiology because it is viewed as a fringe science, relying heavily on theories, supposition, and extrapolation. However, some feel that astrobiology is an important field of study, and that it could provide clues into the future of life on Earth as well as that in the universe in general.

The Moon, which some astrobiologists study.
The Moon, which some astrobiologists study.

Researchers in this field study the history, evolution, and nature of life on Earth in order to learn more about the potential for life in the universe. By looking at Earth's life, astrobiologists can think about parameters which could be used to narrow down the search for life in other places. For example, it is commonly thought that water is necessary to support life, so researchers are especially interested in objects in space which house deposits of water. Issues like the proximity of a star to a planet which could house life are also of interest.

In addition to looking at life on Earth and trying to make projections about the future of evolution, astrobiologists also look to the stars. They study objects retrieved from space, such as material from the moon, as well as photographs of distant planets and other objects in space. By studying such artifacts, they hope to detect traces of life, or at least signs that life was once present, even if it is no longer active.

The study of alien life forms also requires some challenges to the fundamentals of biology. For example, the cellular structures which are necessary for life on Earth may be entirely different in other corners of the universe, and the fundamental building blocks for life may also be quite distinct. This means that astrobiology sometimes contradicts other fields in the sciences, as researchers wish to keep an open mind about which forms life might take.

Radio telescope arrays can be used to search for signals from other civilizations.
Radio telescope arrays can be used to search for signals from other civilizations.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@indemnifyme - I'm glad astrobiology is around too. Although, I'm not that concerned about life on other planets. I'm concerned about the future of life on this planet! I think astrobiologists have a lot to offer the human race in terms of the future.

Instead of looking for life on mars or whatever, I think astrobiologists ought to be using their skills to explore the idea of humans colonizing other worlds.

At the rate we're going, the earth's resources aren't going to last too much longer. We're rapidly depleting our stores of oil, and then there's global warming to take into consideration. Climate change is very real! So what are we going to do when the earth's resources are all used up?

If we could find a few other planets to colonize like in all those science fiction movies, we could at least ensure the future of the human race if something happens to the earth.


I am so glad that astrobiologists persist with their "fringe" scientific discipline. I am fascinated by the idea that there is other life in the galaxy. In fact, I think that for us to think life on Earth is the only life that exists in the universe is pretty self centered.

The universe is vast even to the point of being beyond human comprehension. I just can't believe that in all of that, life on earth is it. I think in the next few hundred years we'll definitely find something. Think of how far science and technology have come in the last decade! With a few more advances, we'll be able to study things even farther away. Then who knows what will happen?


I do value the sciences, but from a religious point of view, I don't see the need or a place for astrobiology.

Religious texts in the Abrahamic religions say that the universe, the planets and stars were created by God for the benefit of humans. For example, the sun was created for warmth, to grow food and so that we have day and night in which to organize our life.

The moon was created to provide us light in the night and the stars were created to give us direction. As long as there have been boats and ships on earth, humans have used the North star to find their way at sea.

Looking at astrobiology from this perspective, I don't really understand what astrobiology aims to accomplish. The reason and purpose of the universe has already been explained to us. I also think that if there was life in space, religious texts would have mentioned it and warned us about it.


@burcidi- I wouldn't go as far as saying that astrobiology is a waste of time. If nothing else, I think the study of astrobiology could be tied in with other areas of study. I'm sure it could be used to look at how the changes in different planets and the universe impact earth- earth's land and water formations and weather, for example.


My teacher said that there are many more galaxies than the one we live in, the Milky Way galaxy. And there are billions of planets just in the Milky Way. Can you imagine how many planets there might be in all of the other galaxies?

I think the chances of there being life beyond earth is very high. I don't agree with people who feel that we are wasting our time with astrobiology. I think it's important that we learn what's out there. Plus, it could be beneficial to us as well.

I've heard that in several decades, it might be possible to live on the moon and even grow plants there. So how is this a waste of time and energy?

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