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Steve Desch can see the future of exoplanet research, and it’s not pretty. Imagine, he says, that astronomers use NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to scour the atmosphere of an Earth-mass world for signs of life. Then imagine that they chase hints of atmospheric oxygen for years — before realizing that those were false positives produced by geological activity instead of living things.

Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and other planet hunters met from 13-17 November in Laramie, Wyoming, to plot better ways to scout for life beyond Earth. Many are starting to argue that habitability — having liquid water on a planet’s surface — is not the factor that should guide exoplanet exploration. Instead, the scientists say, the field should focus on the chances of detecting alien life, should it exist.

“Planets can be habitable and not have life with any impact,” Desch told researchers at the meeting.

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Category: Science