Astrobiology at T+5 Years

By Keith Cowing
May 9, 2002
Filed under ,
Astrobiology at T+5 Years

By Baruch S. Blumberg, Nobel Laureate and Director, NASA Astrobiology Institute
Keith Cowing, editor Astrobiology.com and SpaceRef.com

Note: this article first appeared in Ad Astra Magazine, National Space Society, Jan/Feb 2002.

Humans have a long-term interest – a craving for knowledge that probably pre-dates written history. This interest can best be expressed in the form of questions – questions that innumerable souls have asked of themselves, of others – and of the universe that surrounded them: “are we alone in the Universe? are we – and all life – a unique event that occurred only on our own Earth, or do we exist in a life-rich cosmos?”

Over time, as the human ability to probe the physical world in search of answers developed, these questions were coupled with others such as “how did life begin?” and “what is the future of life in the Universe?”

Such ponderings encompass the scope and breadth of what has now come to be called “Astrobiology”.

NASA’s interest in life elsewhere in the universe is by no means new – as is amply demonstrated by 40 years of exobiology research including the twin Viking Landers and their search for life on Mars a generation ago. After a period of lessened activity, interest was sparked anew by a series of exciting scientific revelations which motivated NASA to rethink its approach to understanding life in a universal context. The result was an emergent new discipline for the 21st Century – Astrobiology.

Among the motivating events for the emergence of Astrobiology were images of Europa returned by the Galileo spacecraft indicating the possibility of water under its cracked, icy surface; the detection, in a meteorite from Mars, of material that could be of extraterrestrial biological origin; and the discovery of planets around other stars.

To facilitate research in these areas, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) was established. The NAI is chartered to encourage and fund astrobiological research in basic science and to support the space-venturing missions of NASA. From its outset, NAI basic research has interdisciplinary. It is also highly distributed across many locations forming the backdrop of what is often referred to as a “virtual institute”.

A primary mission of NAI, and astrobiology in general, is to help develop the basic science required for the missions. In time, it is expected that astrobiology will significantly impact existing and planned missions and lead to specific missions dedicated to the answering of astrobiology questions.

Although science is the Institute’s major activity, tha NAI has the responsibility to train and motivate the young scientists who will complete the long-term research that is characteristic of the field. The NAI must also inform the public and attempt to convey to them the excitement and relevance of this field. The NAI believes that it also has a role, along with the rest of the scientific community, in establishing the field of astrobiology as a rigorous, broad , exciting, and effective scientific enterprise.

The path towards implementing NASA’s Astrobiology program has been swift. In September 1996, the First Astrobiology Workshop was convened at NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) to take an initial step toward the definition of the emerging discipline of Astrobiology. In March 1997 ARC was designated as the lead center for Astrobiology and, in the same year, NASA formalized plans to establish the NAI. G. Scott Hubbard was appointed Interim Manager on the NAI in August 1998. In May 1999 the Institute’s first Director was appointed (Baruch Blumberg)

In October 1997 a request for research proposals was issued. More than 50 U.S. research institutions (including universities, free-standing research centers, NASA field centers, and others responded. In July of 1998 eleven teams were chosen for a five-years of funding and the NAI program operations began formally. A subsequent selection was made and four additional teams were selected.

International collaboration is central to the NAI’s effort. No single nation can accomplish the goals of this large and growing field. The intellectual and financial resources of many nations will be needed to effectively realize the program. As such, associate and affiliate relations have been established with research institutions in Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, and France. More are certain to follow.

Given the broad, expansive nature and increasing interest in Astrobiology, a path needed to be set – one that would bring together the incredibly diverse interests of people who now started calling themselves “astrobiologists.”

In July 1998 several hundred scientists from the general scientific and Astrobiology community were invited to the Astrobiology Roadmap Workshop. Out of this collaboration emerged a vision and a plan. Ten science goals, seventeen objectives, and four principles integral to the operation of the Astrobiology program were identified. A clear mission also emerged wherein Astrobiology was cast as being “the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth and in the Universe.”

Now that the NAI has been in operation for several years, planning research is now supplanted by research results – and the need to share this new knowledge. The First Astrobiology Science Conference was held at Ames Research Center in April 2000. Twice as many people showed up as had been expected. A second conference will be held in April 2002. A similar doubling in attendance is expected.

In five short years, Astrobiology has been transformed from a buzz word one had to explain into a overarching research and exploration paradigm that people from diverse backgrounds can intuitively – and easily grasp. Its influence can clearly be seen in a variety of Earth-based and space-based research projects.

Extrasolar planets are now being announced in batches. Moreover, the detection methods are such that ever smaller worlds are being found. We’ve even managed to detect and probe the atmosphere of a planet 150 light years away. Mars now seems to have had a history that was wetter than previously thought – one that may continue to the present day. Europa may not be the only jovian moon with an ocean – Ganymede and Callisto also show telltale signs. Meanwhile, Cassini speeds towards its 2004 rendezvous with Saturn and its large, tantalizing moon Titan.

Research spawned by the ALH84001 meteorite from Mars has led to a re-examination of just how small an organism can be as well as new ways of thinking how to find evidence of life elsewhere. Research in extreme environments on Earth has further expanded the boundaries wherein Earth life can exist – thus expanding potential extraterrestrial locales where we should be looking for life elsewhere.

Not bad for a 5 year old.

Astrobiology has arrived. And we’ve only just started.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.