The big picture: Of course, what astronomers are looking for is arguably just as important as the gear they are using to find it. And in the hunt for alien life forms, they believe it is important to consider environments that aren’t only dominated by nitrogen and oxygen like here on Earth.

Astronomers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are hoping that next-gen hardware like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will help them discover evidence of extraterrestrial life in the universe.

In a recently published paper in the journal Natural Astronomy, Professor Sara Seager and her colleagues point to laboratory studies in which microbes survive and thrive in hydrogen-rich environments as proof that we should be looking not just at worlds like our own when scanning the cosmos for life.

In their experiments, the team grew cultures of yeast and E. coli in environments consisting of 100 percent hydrogen, measuring the live microbes each hour for 80 hours straight. The results mirrored the classic growth curve, thriving and remaining stable as new microbes continued to grow and replace those that died off.

In fairness, these are the results that Seager expected. “But seeing is believing, right? If no one’s ever studied them, especially eukaryotes, in a hydrogen-dominated environment, you would want to do the experiment to believe it,” she added.

The astronomer said she hopes the study will encourage cross-talk between fellow astronomers and biologists as the search for extraterrestrial life really ramps up.

Masthead credit: Sergey Nivens, Anusorn Nakdee