Astrobiology (general)

House Science Committee Discusses Astrobiology Research

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
December 20, 2013
Filed under ,
House Science Committee Discusses Astrobiology Research

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a December 4 hearing to assess the multi- and interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research.

NASA’s Astrobiology Program, part of the Planetary Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate includes four divisions: NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI); Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology (EXO); Astrobiology, Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID); and Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP). NASA publishes astrobiology roadmaps in order to outline definitions, accomplishments, set priorities, and describe public outreach and education objectives in the field of astrobiology. The next astrobiology roadmap is expected to be released in 2014.

The three essential questions that the roadmaps seek to define include: “how does life begin in the universe?,” “does life exist elsewhere in the universe?” and “what is the future of life on Earth and beyond?” According to a hearing charter prepared by committee staff, the latest roadmap, published in 2008, included seven astrobiology goals: “understand the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe,”

“determine any past or present habitable environments, prebiotic chemistry, and signs of life elsewhere in our Solar System,” “understand how life emerges from cosmic and planetary precursors,” “understand how life on Earth and its planetary environment have co-evolved through geological time,” “understand the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life,” understand the principles that will shape the future of life, both on Earth and beyond,” and “determine how to recognize signatures of life on other worlds and on early Earth.”

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) discussed the excitement that stems from exploring new planets and what are the potential implications for life on Earth. “The discovery of even microbes on another planet would be the most newsworthy story in decades,” he stated as he posed questions mirroring those that NASA is attempting to answer including what we could find in the atmospheres of these planets. “The United States has pioneered the field of astrobiology and continues to lead the world in this type of research.” He highlighted the increased number of publications in the field of astrobiology as he provided an overview of research.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) opened the hearing noting “the question of whether there is life beyond Earth got increased attention this year following the Kepler space telescope’s discovery of Earth-sized exoplanets in habitable zones around other stars, and Curiosity’s finding of traces of water in Martian soil.” She hoped that “Congress recognizes the vital contributions of ongoing and future NASA space science missions in answering whether there is life in the universe.”

Three witnesses testified. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA discussed how NASA’s Kepler mission discovered 833 new candidate planets outside our solar system as she stated that “astrobiology embraces the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, as well as studies of the potential for life to adapt to future challenges, both here on Earth and beyond.”
Voytek noted the benefits to society including that NASA’s Astrobiology Program funded the detectors and technology used to examine the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and that the Program developed the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover.

Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discussed observations of exoplanets biosignature gases as she discussed exoplanets research. She also provided an overview of the progress and evolution of the field of astrobiology, stating that “the progress in the search for life beyond Earth resulting from NASA-supported astrobiology has been tremendous.” She discussed satellite missions associated with finding exoplanets include NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, scheduled to launch in 2017, and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018. The combination of these, she stated, “is our first step to discover and characterize potentially habitable exoplanets transiting the nearest small stars.”

Steven Dick, Baruch Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology provided the Committee with an overview of key discoveries in astrobiology, critical issues and challenges for the next decade, and the impact that astrobiology has on society. The discovery of exoplanets and the continued search for life have led to the demonstration “that Mars had enough liquid water in the past to be hospitable for life.”

The demonstration of life in extreme environments and the “evidence of microbial life in 3.48 billion year-old rocks in Australia” are “likely to remain controversial over the next decade,” he cautioned as he provided information of NASA studies in astrobiology. Critical challenges include classification and characterization of newly observed planets, continued research about life on Mars, and research on the “origins and limits of life on Earth.”

Questions from Members demonstrated the bi-partisan interest in NASA research activities. Smith inquired about the upcoming astrobiology roadmap and was interested to hear whether witnesses could speculate about a potential timeline for discovery of microbial life. In response, Seager advocated for next generation telescopes and the need for investments in technology. Voytek stated the need for consistent funding for research while Seager discussed the benefits of NASA outreach activities.

Johnson asked about interagency and international collaborations in astrobiology. Voytek noted that the Astrobiology Institute does facilitate collaboration and Seager spoke about international space technology collaboration efforts. Dick promoted a recently published book by the NASA History Office on the history of international collaborations.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics

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