Since 1992 astronomers have discovered more than 5000 planets around other stars. Meanwhile, the field of astrobiology has been steadily evolving, and scientists are getting closer to understanding the possibilities of life beyond Earth. The recent National Academies decadal surveys on astronomy and astrophysics and on planetary science and astrobiology highlight the importance of habitability studies to the search for life on the planets of our solar system as well as on exoplanets. Unfortunately, the scientific community is not yet taking advantage of decades of knowledge gained in habitability assessments.
Habitability is generally defined as the suitability for harboring life, usually referring to human occupancy. In the context of planetary science and astrobiology, it has come to refer to a set of environmental conditions capable of supporting any life. One of the major standing problems facing astrobiologists is how to measure the right conditions for life—or more formally, how to quantify the habitability of Earth and compare it with everything else in the universe.
Addressing that problem is essential because the study of planetary habitability guides both where to search for life and what those searches should look for. After identifying planets that are potentially habitable, researchers would use the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other instruments to help determine if some of those worlds also have the right atmospheres for simple microbial life such as bacteria or archaea, or even complex life such as plants and animals. Another approach could be to search for indicators of intelligent life, or technosignatures.
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