As discussed in Chapter 5, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Astrobiology Program has excelled at implementing innovative programmatic elements that enhance communication and collaboration between communities engaged in astrobiological research. Creative partnering is not, however, new to NASA’s Astrobiology Program. From its earliest days, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) nucleated multidisciplinary, multiinstitutional teams of researchers funded under cooperative agreements with their lead institutions (Blumberg 2003). This arrangement, under which each NAI team’s lead institution provided approximately 40 percent additional funding (Blumberg 2003), constituted a public-private partnership that successfully spurred independent investment in astrobiological research and magnified the impact of agency investments in the field.
Although programmatically innovative and diverse, the examples above demonstrate that NASA’s Astrobiology Program has previously (and productively) focused on strengthening relationships with and between traditional academic communities. Building on this success, NASA is in a position to take advantage of more robust relations with the commercial sector as well. Increasingly related technological and methodological advancements made in the commercial sector and increasing interest in the field of astrobiology from philanthropic organizations and governments, both domestic and international, provide new opportunities to diversify the perspectives and resources brought to bear on the search for life in the universe.
Chapter 5 highlights two areas in which leveraging not only the technology, but also the knowledge of the commercial sector, has a high potential to rapidly advance the search for life. Given the lack of business case in searching for life in the universe, however, the resources of the commercial sector can seem out of reach. The committee encountered two examples of nontraditional partnerships and collaborations that are successfully leveraging commercial sector technologies and capabilities and that have the potential to benefit the field of astrobiology or are actively doing so. Such examples serve as starting points from which the demonstrated collaborative creativity of the NASA Astrobiology Program could explore future partnership opportunities.
The Frontier Development Lab
The innovative Frontier Development Lab (FDL), a research accelerator pioneered by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), brings multiple leading technology companies, including Intel, NVIDIA, and Google, together with early career researchers in data science, astronomy, and planetary science to apply cutting edge artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) methods to large, complex data sets (Cabrol et al. 2018). The partnership has grown out of a reciprocal need. On the one hand, researchers in astronomy and planetary science are being required to manage increasingly large and complex data sets, while on the other, companies invested in developing AI and ML require large and complex data sets on which to test analyses and algorithms (Cabrol et al. 2018). Over the course of an intensive, 8-week workshop (see Table 7.1), FDL staff, mentors, and research teams of early-career scientists work together to identify problems that can be solved with novel AI and ML methods.
There is a high potential for success in applying the FDL partnership model to astrobiological research. The complexity, size, and multidisciplinary nature of astrobiological data sets, which challenge conventional data analysis methods, make them ideal proving grounds for AI and ML technologies. Further, the FDL model itself is engineered to maximize the diversity of perspectives and resources used to solve scientific challenges. FDL staff and experts come from government (NASA ARC), research organizations (SETI Institute, USC Machine Learning Center), and multiple industries—from traditional aerospace (e.g., Lockheed Martin), to technology hardware and software (e.g., IBM, Intel, NVIDIA, and Google), to start-ups (e.g., X Prize) (Cabrol et al. 2018). Resources come not just in the form of capital (e.g., Space Resources Luxembourg), but also in donated hardware (NVIDIA), cloud computing (KX Systems, IBM, and Intel), and software services (e.g., Intel, IBM, and NVIDIA, to name only a few) (Cabrol et al. 2018). This wide variety of expert and early-career participants and diverse range of
TABLE 7.1 Frontier Development Lab 8-Week Project
|Problem Phase||Week 1||Prototyping||Teams learn the problem domains and the skills of the FDL faculty|
|Week 2||Big Ideas||Teams begin to work with their mentors to identify relevant data sets and novel analytical approaches to close knowledge gaps and pursue solution paths within their problem domain|
|Week 3||Concept Definition||Teams are asked to focus on a concept for development, determine its potential for breakthrough, and identify what specific tasks they will need to accomplish over the coming weeks to achieve their goals|
|Solution Phase||Week 4||Data Prep. and Prototyping||Teams begin conducting machine learning experiments to identify least and most promising approaches|
|Week 5||Prototyping and Pivoting||Mentors work with teams to develop their most promising approaches, adapt, and pivot if needed. Possibility of “talent trade”—where team members work on other projects|
|Week 6||Prototyping and Demo||Teams produce and present a demo of their concepts and approaches. The first demo is internal with FDL staff and external advisors/coaches|
|Document Phase||Week 7||Document Draft||Preparation of formal 20 minute presentation, including solution demo and draft paper—presentation to senior NASA scientists and FDL staff|
|Week 8||Presentations||Teams fine-tune “TED Talk” style presentation and demo of their work, and prepare final draft of a paper—presentation to review panel of NASA scientists and corporate/academic AI experts at FDL closing event|
NOTE: The Frontier Development Lab is an intensive 8-week project bringing together industry experts, experienced researchers, and early career scientists to solve problems in planetary science and astronomy using artificial technology and machine learning methods.
SOURCE: Cabrol et al. (2018), white paper submitted to the Committee on An Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, reproduced with the permission of Nathalie Cabrol and William H. Diamond, Jr., SETI Institute/FDL Summer Research Accelerator.
technologies and methods creates a space ideal for the innovation and creative problem-solving that is needed to advance the search for life.
Connecting Scientists with Industry
While initiated as a partnership between NASA ARC and the SETI Institute, one of the greatest strengths of the FDL model is that it brings together government, academic, and industry participants to address a common goal. There is potential in such a partnership model not only to better connect industry opportunities with government science, but also to forge connections between individual researchers and industry partners, or even sponsors. As mission technologies become increasingly complex, the nascent technologies required to accomplish mission goals are increasingly likely to exist outside of the space sector. Concomitantly, flat or falling agency budgets necessitate leveraging investments that have already been made and diversifying funding sources, which can be substantially larger in the commercial sector (Carr 2018). Scientists acting between the commercial and public sectors may become pivotal in identifying opportunities to adapt and adopt commercial technologies for spaceflight. This path forward, however, poses both risks and challenges for research scientists (Carr 2018).
Identifying opportunities for collaboration with the commercial sector can depend heavily on personal connections and an alignment of interests not at the corporate, but at the personal, level. Personal connections between researchers and individuals with the ability to support research, or with influence over those can, is clearly advantageous. However, it does have its negative aspects. Researchers with good ideas, but lacking such connections, will be disadvantaged relative to those more senior or better connected. Funding decisions influenced by personal connections therefore raise important questions of equity, diversity, and inclusiveness.
Collaborations with the commercial sector—particularly in a nonapplied research field such as astrobiology—are unlikely to yield return on investment for the company, and thus tend to be an exchange of technology and ideas, with scientists finding alternative funding to support their work. Individual collaborations with the commercial sector may also be subject to market forces, founder decisions, and acquisitions or bankruptcy. If successful, however, such collaborations have the opportunity to both fund scientists and bring technology into the search for life that would otherwise be too expensive to re-engineer from the ground up. As the FDL partnership model shows, NASA could play a crucial role in providing networking opportunities for commercial entities and individual researchers, thereby laying the foundation for independent collaboration. Furthermore, the output from the agency sponsored or co-sponsored events would provide an immediate impact by diversifying the resource base supporting the search for life.
Much of the current diversity in resource base that exists in astrobiology originates from philanthropic investment. Examples of traditional philanthropic investment models include the Simons Foundation Collaboration on the Origins of Life, the Moore Foundation investment in the Thirty-Meter Telescope, the Kavli Foundation support for astrophysics, and the Heising-Simons Foundation awards in astronomy and cosmology. Additional investment in the search for technosignatures (Box 7.1) has been sustained almost exclusively by the private sector for several decades. New investment models, however, are beginning to emerge, and the direction of astrobiological research in 2015 could not have anticipated the potential these models bring to the field. In late 2018, the Planetary Society’s citizen-funded LightSail 2 spacecraft is anticipated to launch with the goal of accomplishing the first controlled, solar-powered flight in Earth orbit.1 Although LightSail is not an astrobiological mission, its success as a crowd-sourced project illustrates a new level of public involvement and excitement in space science and new opportunities arising therefrom. The nonprofit BoldlyGo Institute2 is currently capturing this same excitement to propel Project Blue—a direct imaging space telescope that will search the habitable zones of the nearest Sun-like stars, Alpha Centauri A and B (Figure 7.1), in order to image Earth-like planets. Project Blue, which will advance the search for
life in the universe, is funded both by a consortium of nonprofit institutes and organizations and by crowd sourcing. As the BoldyGo Institute indicates, recent private investments in astrobiological research are promoting a shift in a less conventional direction—toward higher risk, higher payoff missions focused on the search for life itself. These examples demonstrate how the search for life in the universe is able to channel imagination and excitement into partnerships that advance the necessary science and technology further and faster than can be done alone.
The committee was presented with one such example, Breakthrough Initiatives,3 established out of the Breakthrough Prizes organization in 2015. Since its inception, this organization has invested millions of dollars in the search for life in the universe and has pledged to invest on the order of $100 million over the coming years (Worden 2018). Although these funds are being allocated more slowly than initially anticipated, Breakthrough Initiatives has already made significant contributions to projects such as Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.4 The funds are being spread across a range of activities—from radio searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (Breakthrough Listen), to developing the technology for an interstellar probe (Breakthrough Starshot), to searching for potentially life-bearing exoplanets using biosignatures (Breakthrough Watch)—that at high cost have great potential for discovery. This potential is increased by Breakthrough’s
4 For more information about the Automated Planet Finder and the MeerKAT radio telescope see https://www.ucolick.org/public/telescopes/apf.html and http://www.ska.ac.za/science-engineering/meerkat/, respectively.
willingness to explore partnership ideas with NASA in high-risk/high-payoff activities, for instance, in a potential life-seeking mission to the ocean worlds (Worden 2018). With increasing philanthropic interest in astrobiological missions, future opportunities to pool technological, scientific, and funding resources using joint government-philanthropic life-seeking missions may be on the horizon.
As recently highlighted in a study of public-private partnerships conducted by the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space and Policy Strategy, the variety in types and goals of public-private partnerships “explains why [they] have no single, widely accepted recipe for success” (Jones 2018). During its discussion with experts in public-private partnerships, the committee identified three key questions that can help to create a successful partnership:
- Are you managing the private party’s expectations? To ensure the private investment is sustained, it is vital to work closely with the private party to explain how the investment is used and what can reasonably be accomplished with their level of investment.
- Is the private party receiving their expected return on investment? In the example of the FDL partnership, the metric of success in this area is the willingness of investors and corporate partners to return each year with staff, donated technology resources, and financial support.
- Is the partnership capable of contributing to the science of astrobiology, providing innovative approaches to answering fundamental astrobiological questions, while allowing for mutual benefits to the personnel and infrastructure that NASA’s astrobiology studies depend on?
Identifying opportunities with the potential to become fruitful partnerships, however, can be difficult. The committee met with representation from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH)—an independent, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to bring together corporations, research organizations, and private individuals to advance the mission of the NIH—to learn how mutually favorable opportunities can be identified and transformed into efficient partnerships. Because of potential conflict between a private sponsor’s desires and agency science, a key factor of partnership success is absolute clarity of objectives and goals. This clarity is essential to finding areas of benefit for all partners as well as finding private endeavors into which NASA could most beneficially infuse support. Alternatively, or additionally, the agency could approach partnerships by identifying gaps in its own portfolio and seeking private funding or collaborations to address those gaps. Given the public interest in astrobiology, the search for life, and the search for life’s origins on Earth, there may be potential for a similar arrangement in which a nonprofit foundation could identify and manage private and/or commercial partnerships, raise funds, and administer research, educational, and training programs in astrobiology while ensuring that the mission of NASA’s Astrobiology Program is preserved and amplified.
The proliferation of opportunities for furthering astrobiological research from the commercial sector, increasing numbers of high-risk, high-payoff philanthropic investments in astrobiology, and new partnership models create an environment in which there is little reason for NASA’s Astrobiology Program not to participate. As such, it is important that NASA has the authorization to leverage any such venture that could dramatically advance the search for life in the universe. In return, the agency can:
- Take advantage of the private sector’s ability to engage in high-risk, high-payoff activities;
- Leverage the ability of the private sector to act nimbly and efficiently to connect government to industry;
- Accomplish missions and achieve research goals that cannot be carried out with a single funding source; and
- Enhance the diversity of the field’s financial, technical, and human capital resource base.
Finding: The search for life beyond Earth presents attractive opportunities for public, private, and international partnerships.
NASA’s Astrobiology Program dedicates a wedge of funding each year to interagency partnerships intended to further the search for life in the universe (Voytek 2018). Coordination with the National Science Foundation (NSF), particularly, has led to new collaborations across disciplinary expertise often stove-piped by long-standing agency and disciplinary norms. For example, in 2016 NASA and NSF co-sponsored a Joint Ideas Lab that included both an intensive workshop and a funding solicitation that has continued to the present focused on the Origins of Life. The overarching goal of the Ideas Lab was to foster transformative, cross-cutting, and cross-disciplinary research approaches that integrate both the “metabolism first” and “genetics first” theories for the origins of life in order to inform the requirements for life on Earth as well as our search for life elsewhere. The joint agency workshop brought together disciplinary expertise from Earth science, planetary science, geochemistry, biochemistry, astrobiology, and biology to address the origins of translation. The weeklong workshop included 29 participants selected from 130 applications. Workshop activities focused on building teams of participants from traditionally disparate disciplines in order to generate novel and innovative approaches to critical questions in prebiotic chemistry and life’s origins. Following the workshop, 11 teams submitted proposals, and 5 were funded (2 through NSF and 3 through NASA). A subset of participants led by early career scientists also submitted and were awarded an NSF Research Coordination Network grant for the Exploration of Life’s Origins. The example demonstrates how interagency initiatives that encourage unconventional collaborations and innovative approaches to astrobiology research can expand the astrobiology research community to include disciplinary scientists who previously may have been peripheral to the astrobiology community.
There are, however, several mutual investments made by these two agencies in which a greater clarity of goals and joint strategic investment portfolio may be of benefit. For example, recent discoveries have elevated the solar system’s ocean worlds as viable targets for the search for life. The potential for life in these environments, and the formation and preservation of such life’s biosignatures can be explored in the extreme habitats of Earth’s deep oceans and polar regions. Furthermore, the ice shelves and deep oceans of our own planet are ideal test beds for technology development for future exploration of potentially habitable ocean and icy worlds. The success of such analog research depends critically on access to these environments. While some analog research is conducted through the NSF Office of Polar Programs or within the NSF Biological Sciences and Geosciences directorates, most of the research funding for this analog research comes through the NASA Astrobiology Program and associated research and analysis funding opportunities. In contrast, access to the polar regions as well as the U.S. fleet of scientific research vessels—operated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System—is within the purview of NSF. As NASA-funded research programs to these environments expand, better coordination between NASA and NSF to facilitate polar region and fleet access will be required.
In a similar vein, both the NSF and NASA support major ground-based observatories that play important roles in advancing astrobiology research. For example, the NSF supports the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) observatories at Kitt Peak (Arizona) and on Mauna Kea (Hawaii) as well as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which has radio telescopes in West Virginia and New Mexico. NASA funds the InfraRed Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea and is a minor partner with the private sector on the twin 10-m class Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea. NASA also supports the Large Binocular Telescope on Arizona’s Mount Graham, whose infrared interferometer is used to detect and measure the extent of exozodiacal dust around stars typical of those to be searched for habitable planets. A coordinated space- and ground-based strategy for detecting exoplanet biosignatures, informed by a systems science approach, would be useful to make the best use of both of these powerful avenues.
Recently, NSF and NASA acknowledged a shortage of high-precision radial velocity spectrometers capable of determining lower mass bounds for Earth-size exoplanets and available for follow-on observations in support of NASA missions such as Kepler and TESS. In result, the two agencies have committed to funding a large portion of the observation time on the existing 3.5-m WIYN (Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO) telescope on Kitt Peak. Further, they will support the design and construction of a new precision radial velocity spectrometer for use on the WIYN telescope in order to perform exoplanet follow-on observations.
While this agreement provides a good example of successful investment between NASA and NSF in advancing a unified ground- and space-based exoplanet strategy, further opportunities for collaboration exist. NSF has
yet to invest significant resources in the giant segmented mirror telescope (GSMT) project that was prioritized as third of four large-scale activities in the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey (NRC 2010). The two U.S. GSMT projects (the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope) are anticipated to have high precision radial velocity spectrometers capable of determining the masses of transiting Earth-like exoplanets discovered by space telescopes. The addition of a coronagraph to either could allow direct imaging of the closest Earth-like planet, Proxima Centauri b, in the mid-2020s, well before any direct imaging mission recommended by the 2020 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey could begin development. However, both projects are struggling with the billion-dollar costs of construction. NASA may be able to hasten progress in these projects by partnering with NSF in supporting at least one of the GSMTs, particularly if adaptive optics and a coronagraph are included to permit the detection and characterization of nearby Earth-like worlds.
Finding: Space-based observation of nearby transiting Earth-like planets orbiting M-dwarf stars will be enhanced by complementary data sets acquired by ground-based giant segmented mirror telescopes—e.g., direct imaging, radial velocity measurements, and atmospheric spectra.
Finding: Unified research strategies between relevant entities—including, but not limited to NASA, NSF, and NOAA—for conducting research in shared areas (e.g., polar regions and other difficult-to-access analog environments) and with shared infrastructure (e.g., ground- and space-based telescopes) would facilitate advances in astrobiology.
Since its earliest days, the Astrobiology Program through the NAI has pursued a progressive model for establishing international partnerships (Blumberg 2003). Potential partners can request association with the NAI at a government-to-government level (associate partners) or at the institute-to-organization level (affiliate partners). At the time of this writing, the NAI has two associate partners and 12 affiliate partners (see https://nai.nasa.gov/international-partners/). Both associate and affiliate international partnerships are conducted with no exchange of funds and consist primarily of collaborative scientific exchange and early career training opportunities (Blumberg 2003). In addition to bringing a diversity of perspectives and resources to the field, such associations have the potential to raise the profile of international astrobiology programs, increasing the chance of investment in associate or affiliate partners by their home governments, as occurred with Spain’s Centro di Astrobiología shortly after its association with the NAI was established (Blumberg 2003).
Although, like interagency missions, international space missions do not reduce total mission costs (NRC 2011), they are able to reduce up-front expenditures and, most importantly, they unite nations in the pursuit of a common goal and bring a diversity of problem-solving capabilities to increasingly complex mission concepts. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the Joint Statement of Intent signed on April 26, 2018, between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) regarding Mars Sample Return (MSR). The statement emphasizes the common goal between NASA and ESA and sets a deadline of end-2019 for the agencies to have established their respective roles and responsibilities in the multimission Mars sample-return campaign (see Box 6.1). Unlike prior planned international collaborations that did not follow through for lack of funding or prioritization, the consensus of the U.S. (NRC 2011) and European scientific communities on the value of an MSR campaign demonstrates a key requirement in successfully carrying out an international mission. Further, the rigorous planetary protection (see Box 6.2) discussion that will need to be had in the international arena concerning the return of martian samples to Earth, and possible research directions stemming from that discussion, will be of particular utility to the astrobiology community as it seeks to further understand the limits of known life and potential for extant life on Mars.
The goal of detecting and characterizing life on nearby exoplanets is such an immense challenge that it is not clear that any single space agency will be able to achieve this goal. NASA and ESA have a lengthy record of collaboration on major missions, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and JWST, which also includes contributions from the Canadian Space Agency. The committee discussed the idea, first suggested by European astronomers
a decade ago in the context of joint NASA/ESA direct-imaging space telescopes, that NASA join with ESA and other like-minded agencies in seeking to found a new international organization dedicated to the goal of detecting and characterizing life on nearby exoplanets. Member nations would pledge to guarantee the sustained funding required to achieve this goal over a multidecadal timescale. Such a steady funding steam would be the most efficient approach to supporting the development and construction of a direct-imaging space telescope capable of searching hundreds of nearby stars for possibly habitable exoEarths.
Several models for how such an international body might be structured, organized, and funded exist; relevant examples include the following:
- CERN,5 the European Organization for Nuclear Research, with 22 member nations, unites the worldwide community of researchers in the field of elementary-particle physics by the provision of state-of-the-art accelerators and ancillary facilities;
- International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Organization,6 with 35 member nations, supports a worldwide effort to demonstrate that a sustained nuclear fusion can be achieved and become a feasible energy source for the future; and
- European Southern Observatory,7 with 16 member nations, exists to provide European astronomers with access to the some of the most capable astronomical telescopes from several of the best observing sites in the Southern Hemisphere.
Finding: The nucleation of government-level astrobiological partnerships that has been initiated by NASA has the potential to precipitate formation of an international organization with a unified focus on solving the immense challenges of detecting and confirming evidence for life within and beyond the solar system.
Recommendation: NASA should actively seek new mechanisms to reduce the barriers to collaboration with private and philanthropic entities, and with international space agencies to achieve its objective of searching for life in the universe.
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