From: Stig_Agermose@online.pol.dk (Stig Agermose) Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998 04:39:40 +0200 Fwd Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998 12:10:17 -0400 Subject: NASA's Astrobiology Program URL: http://www.mercurycenter.com:80/premium/scitech/docs/astrobio23.htm Stig ******* Published Tuesday, June 23, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News Ames charts far-out goals for institute of researchers BY GLENNDA CHUI Mercury News Science Writer WHEN people say the new Astrobiology Institute at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View will cover life in the universe from soup to nuts, they're not kidding. They're talking everything from the primordial soup to concepts that, a few years ago, seemed downright nutty. To name a few: =B7 Maybe living microbes can spread from one planet to another, surviving journeys of millions of miles on rocks hurtling through space. =B7=BFMaybe with the right system of telescopes, astronomers over the next decade or so can snap photos of planets around other stars -- and tell whether they harbor life. =B7=BFMaybe comets, those dirty snowballs that loop around the sun, are factories for cooking up a host of complicated chemicals. They may have been the Johnny Appleseeds that scattered the prerequisites of life across the cosmos. And perhaps the wildest idea of all: The researchers who are pursuing these matters, and many more, will work in offices that in some cases are thousands of miles apart, linked by a new, high-speed computer network. This should allow them to write on virtual blackboards and argue in virtual hallways as if they were in the same building. At least that's the plan. "I don't know of an example that comes close to this, to the kind of ambitious goals we have for this institute," said Lawrence Caroff, who is helping to coordinate the effort at Ames. "This is an experiment," said Donald L. DeVincenzi, division chief for space science at Ames. "This is the first time any of us is doing anything like this." The virtual institute formally came to life last month with the announcement that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had selected 11 institutions as the initial members, out of 53 groups that had applied. It has a budget of $3.5 million this year to pull itself together and get rolling. NASA has budgeted $9 million for next year, proposed $20 million for the following year and projected that the institute could eventually pull in $100 million annually. Ames, which is NASA's official center for the study of astrobiology, is also one of the institute's first members and serves as its headquarters. To carry out its own proposal, it has fielded a team of more than 70 scientists from 25 institutions across the country, representing disciplines from earth science to biology and computer modeling. Among the other members, Scripps Research Institute and the University of California-Irvine plan to study the emergence of chemical systems that can reproduce themselves -- one of the criteria for life. Harvard University will take a look at three major transitions in the evolution of life: the buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere about 2 billion years ago; the Cambrian Explosion, in which nearly all of today's classes of plants and animals sprang into being 540,000 years ago; and the Permian-Triassic boundary 251 million years ago, in which 95 percent of ocean species and a good number of species on land suddenly and mysteriously vanished. And NASA's Johnson Space Center will work on identifying biological markers that serve as signatures for life, both here and in space. The leader of the Johnson team, David McKay, is one of the scientists who announced two years ago that they had found what looked like fossilized microbes in a meteorite from Mars; that claim is still in dispute. Each of these teams is a far-flung enterprise, combining scientists from many institutions and from a number of fields. If it were plotted on a map, with strings linking its various parts, the institute would look like a spider web. That's exactly what its creators intended. The idea was to unite people who had never worked together before, and who could combine their expertise in unanticipated ways to discover something new. "It's a way of trying to use NASA technology and communications technology to enable a new level of complexity in research," said David Des Marais, one of the leaders of the Ames team. "We're trying to create a new research organism." The institute is part of a renaissance at NASA/Ames, which only three years ago was struggling for survival and searching for a new mission that would save it from closing. The center had a longstanding program in exobiology -- the study of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and the possibility of life elsewhere. But the field was a backwater. Although it produced a steady stream of productive science, it rarely made headlines and never attracted much money. One of NASA's most visible efforts, a search for radio signals from extraterrestrial beings, was killed in 1993 by Congress, which derided it as fruitless and a waste of money. Then came a string of dramatic discoveries suggesting that life is both hardy and widespread. On Earth, researchers found signs of life dating back 3.8 billion years, to a time when comets pelted the infant planet. Biologists discovered microbes thriving in unbelievably harsh conditions: in boiling springs like those at Yellowstone National Park, inside salt crystals, inside rocks. Some bacteria live deep underground, apparently subsisting on rock and water; others survive millions of years in Siberian permafrost and are revived by thawing. The amazing microbe Deinococcus radiodurans endures tremendous doses of radiation; although its genetic material initially falls apart, it reassembles itself in a matter of hours. In space, astronomers detected planets around other stars. A few of those planets were at the right distance from their parent stars to allow the existence of liquid water -- considered the main requirement for the development of life. The Galileo mission found evidence of liquid oceans under the icy crust of Jupiter's moon Europa -- a place where life could conceivably gain a foothold. And the discovery of possible fossils in the Mars meteorite renewed interest in the search for life on that planet. As Ames astrophysicist Louis Allamandola puts it, "Life may be a cosmic imperative. The conditions are everywhere. You don't need a magic thing to happen right here." As the sense of excitement grew, Ames persuaded NASA headquarters to make Ames the agency's lead center for astrobiology research. It was also designated the NASA Center for Excellence in Information Technology. The two dovetail nicely in the Astrobiology Institute, officials said. It'll need a lot of computing power to hook up all its far-flung parts and to do the kinds of science it envisions. "There are some familiar themes, but we're asking new questions or applying new methods of analysis," DeVincenzi said. "We didn't have the computer technology five years ago to create an artificial cell on a computer. Now we do." The institute is already having some growing pains. The man who reportedly was the first choice to become director -- Wesley T. Huntress Jr., NASA's associate administrator for space science -- instead accepted a job as director of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory. The agency's second choice didn't work out either, and it has not yet appointed an interim director. Caroff said the delays have held up other important decisions, such as the selection of an interconnection guru to set up the computer network. Another problem: NASA originally said it would fund seven or eight proposals. It funded 11 instead. So the institute's budget is being stretched thinner, with each team getting 40 percent to 80 percent of the money it had requested. The Ames team, which has been told it will get less than half of its request, is waiting to see which parts of its many-pronged proposal will go forward. Among the possibilities: =B7 Tracing carbon -- the backbone of terrestrial life -- from its origin in the death throes of aging stars to its role in space dust, comets, meteorites, the primitive Earth and living things. =B7Investigating the formation of planets that can support life: Are there rules that determine where and how they form? How many are out there? How can we tell, from afar, which ones are habitable? =B7=BFHow did the young Earth and early life forms evolve together? =B7=BFWhat did the first living cell look like? Researchers hope to re-create it on a computer. =B7=BFIf planets have life cycles, is the Earth young, middle-aged or old? As DeVincenzi puts it, "Can we recognize when a planet is going downhill?" Are people doing anything to speed its demise? =B7=BFWhat is the potential for living things to survive beyond their planets of origin? Christopher McKay, a physicist at Ames who has been involved in the search for extraterrestrial life for two decades, will be holding a small workshop on this question Thursday and Friday at Ames. It will explore not only the possibility of microbes hitching rides on meteorites but also the feasibility of people living on Mars. "These are questions that not too long ago would produce a high snicker factor -- and they still can, if we don't approach them properly," he said. Human settlement of another planet is "no longer a crazy idea," he said. "We're asking, 'Can we do it? Is life that adaptable?'=BF" =A91997 - 1998 Mercury Center.
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