B
Related Reports and Programmatic Activities

NRC REPORT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE

In response to the NASA Authorization Act of 2000 and a subsequent request from Edward J. Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Space Science, the NRC Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL) was tasked with assessing the state of the NASA astrobiology program and providing a report by mid-2002 assessing the direction of the NASA astrobiology program. The assessment was to focus on (1) the program described in the 1998-1999 Astrobiology Roadmap, (2) astrobiology aspects of the 2000 Origins Roadmap, and (3) relevant portions of the Year 2000 Office of Space Science Strategic Plan, a survey of initiatives for seeking life in the universe conducted by other U.S. federal and nongovernmental groups. Similar activities by foreign space agencies were also to be considered, enhancements to the U.S. program that might be warranted were to be identified, and ways to coordinate NASA efforts with those of other parties were to be recommended.

Life in the Universe1 contained the following statements and recommendations that are of direct relevance to the current study:

ADDITIONAL ENHANCEMENTS TO NASA’S ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAM

Research efforts that are directly identified as astrobiology are dominated today by the biological and geological sciences. Yet the intellectual sphere covered by objectives in astrobiology includes much of the planetary sciences and the stellar and planetary aspects of the astronomical search for origins. Involvement of planetologists and astronomers has been hampered by a strong skepticism, even suspicion, in those communities regarding the scientific value of astrobiology as an intellectual endeavor. The committee believes that some of this skepticism will decline as astrobiology demonstrates results and as the future emerging field is better defined both intellectually and programmatically (that is, through

1  

National Research Council. 2003. Life in the Universe: An Assessment of U.S. and International Programs in Astrobiology. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, p. 5.

 



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The Astrophysical Context of Life B Related Reports and Programmatic Activities NRC REPORT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE In response to the NASA Authorization Act of 2000 and a subsequent request from Edward J. Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Space Science, the NRC Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL) was tasked with assessing the state of the NASA astrobiology program and providing a report by mid-2002 assessing the direction of the NASA astrobiology program. The assessment was to focus on (1) the program described in the 1998-1999 Astrobiology Roadmap, (2) astrobiology aspects of the 2000 Origins Roadmap, and (3) relevant portions of the Year 2000 Office of Space Science Strategic Plan, a survey of initiatives for seeking life in the universe conducted by other U.S. federal and nongovernmental groups. Similar activities by foreign space agencies were also to be considered, enhancements to the U.S. program that might be warranted were to be identified, and ways to coordinate NASA efforts with those of other parties were to be recommended. Life in the Universe1 contained the following statements and recommendations that are of direct relevance to the current study: ADDITIONAL ENHANCEMENTS TO NASA’S ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAM Research efforts that are directly identified as astrobiology are dominated today by the biological and geological sciences. Yet the intellectual sphere covered by objectives in astrobiology includes much of the planetary sciences and the stellar and planetary aspects of the astronomical search for origins. Involvement of planetologists and astronomers has been hampered by a strong skepticism, even suspicion, in those communities regarding the scientific value of astrobiology as an intellectual endeavor. The committee believes that some of this skepticism will decline as astrobiology demonstrates results and as the future emerging field is better defined both intellectually and programmatically (that is, through 1   National Research Council. 2003. Life in the Universe: An Assessment of U.S. and International Programs in Astrobiology. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, p. 5.  

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The Astrophysical Context of Life future roadmaps). But there remains the difficulty of interaction between research areas whose techniques, technical language, and experimental approaches are very different. The long-term success of astrobiology in addressing its objectives will depend on a deeper and more extensive exchange of ideas with the traditional space sciences. COEL commends NASA for developing a strong and well-balanced Solar System Exploration program that forms an important foundation for much of the central endeavor of astrobiology. Recommendations The NASA Astrobiology Institute should initiate a much broader suite of focus group programs with planetary scientists, beyond those currently devoted to studies of Mars and Europa, to create a deeper level of mutual understanding and appreciation of the two research areas, and to provide new perspectives for future solar system exploration. NASA should foster more extensive links between the Astrobiology and the Astronomical Search for Origins programs. In the short term, these linkages require cooperation between the NAI and major astronomical institutions, such as the Space Telescope Science Institute and universities with extensive astronomical programs, in creating joint workshops and focus groups to educate researchers in both areas and to initiate more extensive and novel research endeavors. Panels evaluating NAI membership proposals must be broadly constituted to ensure expert evaluation of research programs that are intellectually strong but have a discipline balance very different from that found in the existing NAI nodes. NASA should study the feasibility and desirability of creating and funding an institute, akin to the NAI, dedicated to consortium-based science and technology (e.g., involving multi-institution teams) related to the astronomical search for origins on the full range of spatial and temporal scales. The current study is undertaken in part to follow up on this perspective and these recommendations from Life in the Universe. NASA’S ORIGINS ROADMAP As part of the NASA strategic planning process, the Origins theme in the Office of Space Science’s Astronomy and Physics Division revised its roadmap.2 This roadmap was the product of deliberation and discussion by the Origins Subcommittee of NASA’s Space Science Advisory Committee, working with representatives from NASA’s field centers and with substantial input from the astronomical community. The roadmap sets out a plan for a 20-year period at the beginning of the millennium, with particular emphasis on activities advocated for new mission starts in the near term (2005 to 2010) or mid-term (2010 to 2105) time frame. Topics that overlap with the enterprise of astrobiology are woven through the document. Among the high-level questions to be addressed are, Where did we come from? Are we alone? These questions are posed more specifically in the Origins Technology Roadmap:3 The Questions … The Quests Search for our earliest origins What were the earliest structures produced within the universe? How did galaxies form? 2   Available at <http://origins.jpl.nasa.gov/library/roadmap03/index.html>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 3   Available at <http://origins.jpl.nasa.gov/library/techroadmap/roadmap04.html>. Last accessed April 29, 2005.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life How did primeval gas form the first stars? Where and when were the heavy elements (C, N, O, …) formed? Search for life beyond our solar system How do stellar and planetary systems form and evolve? What is the distribution and characteristics of planets around nearby stars? How did the physical and chemical conditions necessary for life arise in the universe? Are there life-supporting planets orbiting nearby stars? The first set of questions is arguably relevant to the broader astrobiological context, and the second set is indistinguishable from some of the central goals of astrobiology. NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap NASA’s Astrobiology program completed its most recent roadmap in 2003.4 That document contained the following prefatory material: Astrobiology is the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. It requires fundamental concepts of life and habitable environments that will help us to recognize biospheres that might be quite different from our own. Astrobiology embraces the search for potentially inhabited planets beyond our solar system, the exploration of Mars and the outer planets, laboratory and field investigations of the origins and early evolution of life, and studies of the potential of life to adapt to future challenges, both on Earth and in space. Interdisciplinary research is needed that combines molecular biology, ecology, planetary science, astronomy, information science, space exploration technologies, and related disciplines. The broad interdisciplinary character of astrobiology compels us to strive for the most comprehensive and inclusive understanding of biological, planetary and cosmic phenomena. This NASA Astrobiology Roadmap outlines these multiple pathways for research and exploration and indicates how they might be prioritized and coordinated. The roadmap embodies the efforts of more than 200 scientists and technologists, including NASA employees, academic scientists whose research is partially funded by NASA grants, and many members of the broader community who have no formal association with NASA. Fundamental Questions Astrobiology addresses three basic questions that have been asked in various ways for generations: How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond? Principles The following basic principles are fundamental to the astrobiology program: Astrobiology is multidisciplinary in its content and interdisciplinary in its execution. Its success depends critically upon the close coordination of diverse scientific disciplines and programs, including space missions. Astrobiology encourages planetary stewardship through an emphasis on protection against forward and back biological contamination and recognition of ethical issues associated with exploration. 4   Available at <http://astrobiology.arc.nasa.gov/roadmap/>. Last accessed April 29, 2005.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life Astrobiology recognizes a broad societal interest in its endeavors, especially in areas such as achieving a deeper understanding of life, searching for extraterrestrial biospheres, assessing the societal implications of discovering other examples of life, and envisioning the future of life on Earth and in space. The intrinsic public interest in astrobiology offers a crucial opportunity to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists and informed citizens; thus a strong emphasis upon education and public outreach is essential. Life is a central theme that unifies NASA’s vision and mission. A golden age has begun for the life sciences, an age in which science and technology will benefit enormously from a fundamental understanding of the full potential of living systems. This Roadmap outlines how to achieve a better fundamental understanding both of our own world and also of potential habitable worlds and life beyond Earth. This is an agenda for inspiring the next generation of planetary explorers and stewards to sustain the NASA vision and mission. The Astrobiology Roadmap is formulated in terms of seven science goals that outline the key domains of investigation. Within each of these goals, more specific science objectives, a total of 18, present more specific high-priority efforts for the next 3 to 5 years that are intended to be integrated with NASA strategic planning. The science goals are as follows: Goal 1. Understand the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe … Goal 2. Explore for past or present habitable environments, prebiotic chemistry and signs of life elsewhere in our solar system … Goal 3. Understand how life originates from cosmic and planetary precursors … Goal 4. Understand how past life on Earth interacted with its changing planetary and solar system environment … Goal 5. Understand the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life … Goal 6. Understand the principles that will shape the future of life, both on Earth and beyond … Goal 7. Determine how to recognize signatures of life on other worlds and on early Earth. RELEVANT ACTIVITIES IN OTHER AGENCIES National Science Foundation Life in Extreme Environments Life in Extreme Environments (LExEn) was a successful interdisciplinary program run from 1997 to 1999 by the Directorates for Biological Sciences, Engineering, Geosciences, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences and the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation. The LExEn research program explored “the relationships between organisms and the environments within which they exist, with a strong emphasis upon those life-supporting environments that exist near the extremes of planetary conditions. In addition, the LExEn program [supported research in] planetary environments in our own solar system and beyond to help identify possible sites for life.” This program placed heavy demands on both the financial resources and, especially, the personnel of the NSF since neither new funds nor new personnel to manage the complex cross-disciplinary effort were available. The success of this program was a credit to the dedicated NSF staff who worked so hard on it.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life Ridge Interdisciplinary Global Experiments (RIDGE) The Ridge Interdisciplinary Global Experiments (RIDGE) program5 is designed to support research aimed at understanding the geological, chemical, biological, and physical oceanographic interactions between the oceans and hydrothermal circulation of seawater through the ocean crust. Ridge 2000 is a Multidisciplinary Science Research Program focused on integrated geological and biological studies of the Earth-encircling mid-ocean ridge system and funded by the National Science Foundation. The overall objectives of the program, its scientific rationale, and many programmatic details are covered in the Ridge 2000 Science Plan. Central to Ridge 2000 Science is the recognition that the origin and evolution of life in deep-sea ecosystems are inextricably linked to, and perhaps an inevitable consequence of, the flow of energy and material from Earth’s deep mantle, through the volcanic and hydrothermal systems of the oceanic crust, to the deep ocean. The Ridge 2000 Program recognizes that the complex linkages between life and planetary processes at mid-ocean ridges can only be understood through tightly integrated studies that span a broad range of disciplines. With this tenet in mind, Ridge 2000 seeks a focus and coordination of research activities at a few carefully chosen areas. Ridge 2000 Time Critical Studies are designed to enhance detection of volcanic and other transient events on the mid-ocean ridge and to facilitate rapid-response missions that can observe, record, and sample critical transient phenomena. These studies are largely limited to the Northeast Pacific at this time. Three sites have been chosen as type areas for the initial Ridge 2000 Integrated Studies Programs: The East Lau Basin Spreading Center in the Western Pacific Ocean was chosen for a back-arc basin spreading center; the Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Northeast Pacific Ocean as an intermediate rate spreading center, and 8-11°N on the East Pacific Rise off of Central America for a fast spreading center. The RIDGE program supports a substantial amount of work that is related to the astrobiological topics of the origin of life and extremophiles. Polar Programs The NSF Office of Polar Programs,6 in particular the U.S. Antarctic program (USAP), support only research that can be done exclusively in Antarctica or that can be done best from Antarctica. The NSF is currently participating in the NASA review of the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) proposals, which support research aimed at detailed, collaborative analysis of Earth’s extreme environments in order to better understand analogous systems elsewhere. The Antarctic is one of those environments. Successful ASTEP antarctic proposals will require the logistical support of the Office of Polar Programs. Tree of Life Program The overall goal of the Assembling the Tree of Life program7 is to construct a framework phylogeny, or Tree of Life, for all 1.7 million described species on Earth. Phylogeny, the genealogical map for all lineages of life on Earth, provides an overall framework to facilitate information retrieval and biological prediction. The Tree of Life activity supports large teams working across institutions and disciplines to resolve phylogenetic relationships for large groups of organisms on the Tree of Life. 5   Available at <http://ridge2000.org>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 6   Available at <http://www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?org=opp>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 7   Available at <http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2005/nsf05523/nsf05523.htm>. Last accessed April 29, 2005.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life Department of Energy Genomics:GTL Program The Genomics:GTL program (formerly the Genomes to Life8 program) of the U.S. Department of Energy is intended to use the new genomic data and high-throughput technologies for studying the proteins encoded by the genome to explore the amazingly diverse natural capabilities of microbes. Building on the successes of the Human Genome Project, DOE has initiated an ambitious program to achieve the most far-reaching of all biological goals: a fundamental, comprehensive, and systematic understanding of life. DOE’s Genomics:GTL (formerly Genomes to Life) program will make important contributions in the quest to venture beyond characterizing such individual life components as genes and other DNA sequences toward a more comprehensive, integrated view of biology at the whole-systems level. The DOE offices of Biological and Environmental Research and Advanced Scientific Computing Research have formed a strategic alliance to meet this grand challenge. The plan for the program is to use DNA sequences from microbes and other organisms, including humans, as starting points for systematically tackling questions about the essential processes of living systems. Advanced technological and computational resources will help to identify and understand the underlying mechanisms that enable organisms to develop, survive, carry out their normal functions, and reproduce under myriad environmental conditions. This approach ultimately will foster an integrated and predictive understanding of biological systems and offer insights into how both microbial and other cells respond to environmental changes. The applications of this level of knowledge will be extraordinary and will help DOE fulfill its broad missions in energy, environmental remediation, and global climate change mitigation. What are the goals of the Genomics:GTL program? Identify the protein machines that carry out critical life functions; Characterize the gene regulatory networks that control these machines; Explore the functional repertoire of complex microbial communities in their natural environments to provide a foundation for understanding and using their remarkably diverse capabilities to address DOE missions; Develop the computational capabilities to integrate and understand these data and begin to model complex biological systems. Progress in these areas is likely to be important for the astrobiological goals of understanding the origin and evolution of life as well. ASTROBIOLOGY IN EUROPE The European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA)9 was created in 2001 to coordinate the different national research centers and to promote research in astrobiology in Europe. The specific objectives of EANA including the following: To bring together European researchers interested in astrobiology programs and to foster their cooperation. 8   Available at <http://doegenomestolife.org/>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 9   Available at <http://www.graz-astrobiology.oeaw.ac.at/eana.html>. Last accessed April 29, 2005.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life To attract young scientists to this quickly evolving, interdisciplinary field of research. To enhance the public understanding of astrobiology. To interface EANA with European bodies such as ESA, the European Science Foundation (ESF), and the European Commission and with non-European institutions. To create a Web site for establishing a database on astrobiology. EANA’s executive council consists of national members representing 12 European nations active in the field: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. EANA is affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The formal affiliation was signed in 2002 at the Graz Workshop by Rosalind Grymes, Deputy Director of NAI, during a reception hosted by the governor of Styria in historic Eggenburg Castle. EANA is also a member of the International Astrobiology Circle, including the Astrobiology Society of Britain,10 the Australian Centre for Astrobiology,11 the Spanish Centro de Astrobiología,12 the French Groupement de Recherche en Exobiologie (GDR-Exobio),13 and the Swedish Astrobiology Network.14 Collaborative research areas in Europe’s astrobiology network include cosmochemistry, star and planetary formation, the chemistry of the origin of life, terrestrial life as a reference, and the search for habitats and signatures of life beyond Earth. EANA organizes annual conferences: the first European Exo/Astrobiology Workshop, in Frascati, Italy, in May 2001, was attended by 200 scientists; national and international activities in exo/astrobiology were presented. The Second European Workshop on Exo/Astrobiology, held in Graz, Austria, in September 2002, was attended by 320 participants and was oriented toward planetology. The third European Exo/Astrobiology Workshop, hosted by the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid in November 2003, focused on the search for life on Mars. Annual EANA executive council meetings are held during those conferences. EANA intends to incorporate more countries into the network; applications from Hungary, Poland, Romania, Finland, and Russia have been received. Europe hosts the largest astrobiology institute, headed by Juan Perez-Mercader. The Centro de Astrobiología, 30 km north of Madrid, is focused on interdisciplinary research within astrobiology. The International Space Science Institute (ISSI),15 in Bern, hosts an international team on prebiotic matter in space, a consortium of 12 scientists, each representing a specific research field. Team activities include the organization of workshops, collaborative programs in laboratory research and astronomical observations, compilation of a database on organic molecules in space, and publications in refereed journals and books. The organization of astrobiology in Europe is very different from in the United States. Astrobiology does not receive any financial support from European organizations, with the exception of small grants for young researchers attending astrobiology conferences. Astrobiology research is currently organized and financed exclusively by national organizations and then mostly on an individual country basis. Astrobiology activities and funding vary greatly from country to country. Astrobiology in Europe is not tied to space research or the European Space Agency (ESA); however, Europe’s involvement in space 10   See <http://www.astrobiologysociety.org>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 11   See <http://aca.mq.edu.au>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 12   See <http://www.cab.inta.es>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 13   See <http://www.exobio.cnrs.fr>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 14   See <http://www.astrobiologi.se>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 15   See <http://www.issi.unibe.ch>. Last accessed April 29, 2005.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life missions such as Mars Express, Cassini-Huygens, Rosetta, and others provides an important basis for astrobiological research related to planetary exploration. A new European space research program, Aurora,16 was endorsed by the European Union Council of Research and the ESA Council in 2001 and is currently in study phase. Aurora is part of Europe’s strategy for human exploration of our solar system and for the stimulation of new technology. Europe’s future in astrobiology will strongly depend on a coherent funding system involving large European organizations. The implementation of a comprehensive space policy within Europe, which is currently being discussed, could benefit astrobiology in Europe. Continuation and further development of the ESA-Aurora program and the successful outcome of planetary missions currently in orbit (e.g., Mars-Express, Cassini-Huygens) will be an important trigger for the funding of future European research programs in astrobiology. The European Space Science Committee (ESSC) is the ESF expert committee on European space research issues.17 ESSC aims to promote and facilitate the definition and the organization of space research programs in Europe by providing an independent forum on European space policy. By evaluating European space missions and in particular the Aurora program, ESSC and ESF are indirectly supporting astrobiology. Furthermore, ESF and ESSC try to establish a coordinated program within Europe between the science community and official organizations such as the Marine Board and the Polar Board (ESF) to explore new avenues of research on life in extreme environments. 16   See <http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Aurora>. Last accessed April 29, 2005. 17   See http://www.esf.org>. Last accessed April 29, 2005.