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Although Earth is uniquely situated in the solar system to support creatures that call it home, different forms of life could have once existed, or might still exist, on other planets. But finding traces of past or current lifeforms on other worlds is challenging.

ORIGIN Mass Spectrometer

The question of whether life exists beyond the Earth is one of humanity's most fundamental questions. Future NASA missions, for example, aim to examine the ice moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which may potentially shelter life in the liquid oceans underneath the thick layer of ice, on the ground.

A little robotic explorer will be rolling into Antarctica this month to perform a gymnastic feat -- driving upside down under sea ice.

If you've seen dental plaque or pond scum, you've met a biofilm. Among the oldest forms of life on Earth, these ubiquitous, slimy buildups of bacteria grow on nearly everything exposed to moisture and leave behind common tell-tale textures and structures identifying them as living or once-living organisms.

NASA's investment in new instruments to analyze extraterrestrial samples is insufficient to provide for replacement of existing instruments, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. If NASA does not invest additional funds into the replacement of current instrumentation and development of new technologies, technical staff support, and training for the next generation of analysts, current capabilities cannot be sustained, and the full scientific impact afforded by returned samples might not be realized.

A New Test for Life on Other Planets

A simple chemistry method could vastly enhance how scientists search for signs of life on other planets.

Saturn's moon Enceladus offers a unique opportunity in the search for life and habitable environments beyond Earth, a key theme of the National Research Council's 2013-2022 Decadal Survey.

In a harsh environment with very little water and intense ultraviolet radiation, most life in the extreme Atacama Desert in Chile exists as microbial colonies underground or inside rocks.

If you were looking for the signatures of life on another world, you would want to take something small and portable with you.

Beyond Earth, Jupiter's moon Europa is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of present-day life, and a new NASA mission to explore this potential is moving forward from concept review to development.