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NASA's Astrobiology Program

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





Published Tuesday, June 23, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News 

Ames charts far-out goals for institute of researchers

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

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

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

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

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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