House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Holds Hearing on Astrobiology


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Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled, Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond. The purpose of the hearing was to assess the multi- and interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research, including the role astrobiology plays in space missions; examine the techniques and capabilities necessary to determine the potential for the existence of biosignatures within our Solar System;  investigate what methods are being used to determine if any of the newly discovered potential Earth-like planets outside of our Solar System may harbor biosignatures; and to discuss the update to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Astrobiology Roadmap, due to be completed next year.  Testifying before the Committee were Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA; Dr. Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at MIT; and Dr. Steven J. Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her opening statement, "There is no denying humankind's interest in establishing whether life exists elsewhere in the universe.  People have probably speculated on that possibility since time immemorial. The question of whether there is life beyond Earth got increased attention this year following the Kepler space telescope's discovery of Earth-size exoplanets in habitable zones around other stars, and Curiosity's finding of traces of water in Martian soil.  Astrobiology, as we will hear during this hearing, is an interdisciplinary field that makes use of many fields of science to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds.  As might have been guessed, NASA has played a major role in astrobiology's development as a formal discipline."

She continued, "I would be remiss were I not to make note that continuing to provide adequate funding to NASA's science programs is of critical importance if we are to continue to make progress in astrobiology as well as other important scientific fields.  I hope that Congress recognizes the vital contributions of ongoing and future NASA space science missions in answering whether there is life in the universe.   This hearing is an opportunity to shine light on these contributions."

Witnesses and Members discussed a number of issues surrounding astrobiology including, what future goals should be; challenges; technology needed; international collaboration; inspiration and engaging students in astrobiology and STEM; and societal benefits.

Dr. Voytek, said, "Astrobiology is about more than just scientific discovery. Astrobiology research and technology development has an impact on our daily lives and benefits society as a whole.  We are all familiar with the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 - the largest offshore spill in U.S. history. In April of that year, the United States was faced with the challenge of determining the extent of the spill, both in regard to how much oil was leaking and where the oil was moving. Astrobiology had a role in analyzing the spill. Using detectors and autonomous operation technology funded by NASA's Astrobiology Program, along with a National Science Foundation robotic submersible vehicle, scientists were able to map the underwater plume. Technology initially developed to search autonomously for environments capable of supporting life allowed the submersible to navigate along a guided path to search for the plume."

Dr. Seager stressed the inspirational value and potential impact of astrobiology, "In July 2010 I became a citizen of the United States of America, motivated by our nation's uniqueness in its combination of technological forte, allocated resources for space missions, and ambitious spirit. It is within the power of our influence to cross the great historical threshold and be the first generation in human history to map the nearby exoplanetary systems and find signs of life on other Earth-like worlds. As a country, this achievement may prove to be our greatest legacy."

In describing one of the discoveries in astrobiology over the last decade, Dr. Dick singled out research on life in extreme environments.  He said, "Life has been found in hydrothermal vents at high temperatures and pressures deep below the ocean; it has been found three kilometers below the ground employing radioactivity rather than photosynthesis for its metabolic processes; it has been found way above the boiling point of water in the brilliant hot spring of Yellowstone and way below its freezing point in the deserts of Antarctica, under conditions of extreme radiation, salinity, acidity and so on. The point is that life is much more tenacious than once thought, and so may arise on planets under conditions once thought unfavorable."

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