Sunday, October 1, 2023

Diving robots, computers, AI… How technology can unravel the mystery of the origin of life

The National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) has just launched a new program, “Origins”, to better understand the origins of the planets and life on Earth. The research focuses on the first traces of life, but also on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For scientists, new technologies will be a decisive marker to clarify the mysteries of the universe.

How do we get to Earth? Are we the only ones in the universe? Questions almost as old as humanity itself. If for centuries scientists have tried to unravel the mystery of the origin of life, there are many gray areas left to reveal.

A knowledge base “that humanity has never had”

“Today we know well the chronology of the formation of the solar system and we have a good inventory of the isotopic chemical properties of almost all bodies in the solar system,” underlines Alessandro Morbidelli, astronomer and planetologist, co-coordinator of the CNRS “Origins” program. , during a press conference.

According to scientists, the solar system appeared. 4.6 billion years ago. At first, it was just an interstellar cloud, made up of gas and dust. By rotating on itself, a mass would have begun to form that would then heat up and release light energy: it is the sun. The rest of the dust would have continued to orbit the sun, before consolidating and becoming the planets we know today.

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The solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. – Fake images

Six areas of research are planned as part of the program, among them, we find objectives for understanding the Earth. Because, for now, Only our planet seems to support a form of life., since the appearance of cyanobacteria in water 3.5 billion years ago. A separate planet, but perhaps not the only one.

“We live in a special historical period: today we know other planetary systems in addition to our solar system. AND We know planets that look quite similar to Earth, the Super-Earths“, specifies Alessandro Morbidelli.

Several mysteries still remain: what characteristics make the Earth habitable? What is the probability that we can find these same features on another planet? How do we go from inertia to life?

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Therefore, the current knowledge base remains insufficient. For Alessandro Morbidelli, Technological disruption currently prevents these questions from being answered..

Technology calls for science

The last decades have been marked by technological innovations in the space sector. : the Curiosity rover that has been exploring Mars for 11 years, the James Webb space telescope that has been offering images of unprecedented quality since 2021 or even a giant European telescope, currently under construction.

To achieve important advances, we must solve technological challenges, have innovative instruments that allow new measurements.

Alessandro Morbidelli, astronomer and planetologist, co-coordinator of the “Origins” program

For “Origins,” approximately 17 new instruments should be developed over the next ten years to help answer the many questions that remain about life on Earth and elsewhere in space. To support this development, 45.5 million euros will be disbursed over seven years, through the France 2030 investment plan.

“To achieve important progress, we must solve technological challenges, have innovative instrumentswhich may allow new measures,” says Alessandro Morbidelli.

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Geophysics, planetology, biology., so many disciplines that frame the question of the origins of life. New technologies will include, for example, new space imaging tools, more efficient optics, calculators and submersible robots to analyze seismic activity on the seabed.

Artificial intelligence it will also be there. It will allow scientists to perform certain tasks, such as complex calculations, image processing from telescopes, and automatic control of optical instruments.

The sixth research axis of the program includes the integration of the humanities and social sciences.

If this axis does not foresee technological innovations, its objective is integrate anthropological and historical issues into scientific research. One of the objectives: “Replace the construction of scientific knowledge in its historical and sociotechnical contexts,” indicates Alessandro Morbidelli during an interview for the CNRS.

Around 2025, a call for projects will be launched to design new technologies that are not yet conceivable today.

Lila Maitre

Times of National
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