Searching for life in the universe: how will we know it’s life?

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Credit: youtube.com

Earlier this year I reported here on a December 2016 astrobiology workshop held by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB), at NASA’s request. The National Academies has now published the proceedings of this workshop, “Searching for Life Across Space and Time.” At 132 pages, it’s a dense but fascinating read, if you’re interested in the subject matter.

The subject matter is how to look for, identify, and verify evidence of extraterrestrial life.

The more we learn about life as we know it, and the more we speculate about life as we don’t know it, the more we explore other planetary environments in our solar system, and the more we discover about a wildly diverse population of extrasolar planets, the more complex the task of extraterrestrial life detection becomes.

The astrobiology community is focused on identifying reliable biosignatures – that is, signs of life that can’t be signs of something other than life. (Recall the 1996 claim of fossil evidence of microbial life in the martian meteorite ALH 84001 – a claim that continues to be disputed.) The primary challenge here is that there is no simple answer to the question, “What is life?”

At the SSB workshop, experts focused on four approaches to the search for evidence of life beyond Earth: in-situ detection of life as we know it on solar system bodies; remote detection of life as we know it on extrasolar planets; in situ detection of life as we don’t know it (a.k.a. “weird life”) on solar system bodies; and remote detection of life as we don’t know it on extrasolar planets.

Research into the origin (or origins) of life on Earth has yet to reveal exactly how non-life becomes life. At the workshop, astrobiologist John Baross suggested four approaches to the study of the origin of life: a “paleogenetics” approach, working backward in time by studying fossil evidence of ancient biology and prebiology; a “prebiotic chemistry” approach to identifying the chemical pathway (or pathways) to the simplest first life; the astrobiology approach, searching the cosmos for evidence of an independent genesis of life beyond Earth; and a synthetic biology approach, aimed at designing and building life in the laboratory.

Systems biologist Eric Smith posed these questions to the workshop: Is life a cosmic imperative? How would thermodynamics force life into existence? Is the existence of a biosphere an inevitable result of thermodynamics?

Astrobiologist Morgan Cable described three types of extraterrestrial plumes that could be sampled for evidence of life: volcanic plumes, cometary plumes, and plumes emitted by ocean worlds. Would it be possible to detect extant life by plume fly-throughs at several kilometers per second? She discussed some possible sampling techniques that might (or might not) be successful.

Rather than writing a long blog post, I’ve cherry-picked a few topics covered in this report, topics of particular interest to me. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look through the report’s table of contents, or read Chapter 7, which summarizes previous chapters.

Enjoy!

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Hurricane Irma: my observations

iss053e003631Hurricane Irma approaching south Florida, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

On Tuesday September 12, it’s a beautiful mid-hurricane-season day here in Sarasota, Florida, where I now live. My partner David and I, relocated here from the Washington, D.C., area just three months ago, came through Hurricane Irma unscathed.

Miraculously (I know, not a very scientific word), we did not lose power. We suffered no damage to our (rented) property. Even our pool cage is intact. We were not worried about flooding, as we are about eight miles way from the Gulf of Mexico, equidistant from rivers in the area, and at 30 feet above sea level – the highest elevation in Sarasota County (higher than all but one of the county’s emergency shelter locations). Near the peak of the storm, David worried that our pool would overflow and possibly flood the house, so he went outside (in 50-mph winds) and drained some water out of it.

Our neighbors on both sides spent Sunday night elsewhere. They’re all home now, and all is well. I spoke to another neighbor this morning, who spent Sunday night in a shelter with 3000 other people and 1000 dogs (including her own). She said all were very well behaved.

Nonetheless, it’s been a terrifying time here. Today is the first time in at least a week that I feel free of fear and anxiety.

We are not in a flood/evacuation zone where we live (“know your zone” is a message we heard from multiple sources over and over again.) Nonetheless, at the urging of family and friends, we left our Sarasota home Thursday morning Sept. 7 at 8 am, with the aim of reaching northern Virginia by Friday evening. We brought our 20-year-old cat, Giovanni, with us. Six and a half hours later, we’d traveled 150 miles on I-75 north. We pulled off the highway for gas and found that some stations were already out of fuel.

When we did find a truck stop with fuel, of course it was mobbed. The stop had a single entrance/exit – one lane each way. Panicked drivers were entering the stop in both lanes, making it impossible for vehicles to exit the stop. In the midst of this madness, David spoke with the truck-stop operator, who said he was in contact with other truck-stop operators going several states north. They were reporting that the situation was gridlock all the way.

We’d been listening to public radio stations all along the way, and we were not hearing any useful information about traffic conditions, hotel accommodations, fuel supplies moving north. I checked numerous web sites on my phone: Sarasota Highway Patrol, Florida DOT, I-95 web site, I-75 web site. Ditto.

David and I discussed and discussed and discussed the pros and cons of continuing north or turning around and heading back south, as we inched ahead at 10 miles per hour. We finally agreed that the risks of continuing north were equal to, or perhaps even greater than, the risks of returning home. So we returned. My level of anxiety dropped considerably – until Saturday….

On Thursday evening, our neighbors invited us to dinner and provided us with a lot of tips for storm preparation (for example: release the parking brake on your car, put it in neutral and gently roll it up against the inside of your garage door, for extra reinforcement). My friend Rob, who lives in Houston and just went through Hurricane Harvey (relatively unscathed), gave me a lot of good tips too – such as, have an axe ready in case you have to hack you way out through the roof of your home. Other friends advised us to stash important documents and other valuables in our dishwasher.

On Friday we continued preparations for Irma. At the urging of my friend Theresa in Venice, Florida, I went out in search of a car charger for my iPhone. I’d ordered one online that morning, but Theresa said, “Get one now, you won’t regret it.” At 6 pm on Friday, Best Buy was out of them, but Target came through.

Saturday and Sunday were terrible days. I was sick with fear. David was watching CNN and getting panicked. I begged him to switch to our Sarasota news channel, Suncoast News Network (SNN) – or better yet, to step away from the TV for awhile. By Sunday he’d been switching back and forth between CNN and SNN and looking out the window and realized that our local TV news staff, especially the two on-air meteorologists – Justin Moseley and Marco La Manno – were much better informed about local conditions than anybody else on the air. Even our local public radio station, based in Tampa, was only mildly helpful to us. Tampa and Sarasota are very different places, geographically and demographically.

As the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported yesterday, “By the time Hurricane Irma reached Sarasota County Sunday evening, conditions were more on par with a severe tropical storm than a major hurricane. The maximum sustained winds reported in Sarasota County fell between 40 and 50 mph, with gusts topping 70 mph at Sarasota-Bradenton airport and 80 mph in Venice, according to the National Weather Service. The area saw 5.31 inches of rain, somewhere between the initially predicted 0.86 inches and later forecasts of more than 8 inches. And the six to 10 feet of storm surge that was mentioned at every press conference about the hurricane manifested as 1.7 feet of storm surge at Port Manatee. That was not the way meteorologists predicted it would go.”

I try to avoid clichés, but in this case, it’s apt to say that we dodged a bullet.

I took a walk around our neighborhood this morning. I saw lots and lots of plant debris on the ground – to be expected, as our local environment is lush with vegetation. I saw one live-oak tree uprooted and toppled – but it did not damage any homes. That’s it. Roads are clear. Some gas stations here were pumping gas yesterday. Supermarkets are open today. Trash collection resumes tomorrow (Wed.).

In the course of my work with NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) (and past work with NASA’s Planetary Protection Office), I’ve paid close attention to issues in emergency and risk communication. And I’ve paid VERY close attention to communications about Irma during the past week, as Florida prepared for the storm and as it’s now beginning to recover.

How did state and local officials do on emergency and risk communications? How did the media do?

Florida governor Rick Scott stayed on message for days and days before Irma made landfall here. He met with the press every day. Message #1: If you are subject to mandatory evacuation, go as soon as possible. “We can’t save your property but we can save your lives.” Message #2: If you are told to evacuate and do not do so by the deadline we’ve established, we will not be able to rescue you during the storm. Plan for the worst. Local officials stayed on message too. (Another message from local officials: Once wind speeds reach 70 mph, emergency vehicles will be called off the road.) I give them an A. (I’m sure that over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing stories about communication failures here and there, and that’s okay, because it will help us all do better the next time around.)

Our daily paper, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, was an excellent source of information on how to prepare and what to expect. The paper removed its paywall for the duration of Irma and its aftermath. The paper delivered its Sunday edition on Saturday night. (This morning, Tuesday, the Monday edition was delivered.) The paper’s local news staff did their best to keep up with what was happening. Information on shelter locations, free sandbag distribution sites, what to expect at shelters and what to bring with you, and other “news you can use” ran in the paper for several days up to the storm, as did plans for school, airport, and other closings. I give them an A.

Our local Suncoast News Network gets an A-plus – especially its meteorologists. (See above.) National media? B-minus to C. Moseley and La Manno emphasized the top message: if you’re told to evacuate, do not hesitate. At some point I heard La Manno explain in detail what to expect if worst came to worst. He is a Florida native and so has experienced many hurricanes. I especially appreciated his explanation of what a hurricane sounds and feels like (Rob in Houston has been very helpful on this point, too). La Manno said we’d be terrified by the sounds outside, but if we didn’t feel our house moving, we should stay put. He was very good at calmly and clearly explaining many scary things.

CNN, as to be expected, sensationalized (see above). I told David that this is the way cable news gets you to stay glued to the tube (watching all those commercials). National media are good at keeping us sitting in our seats, with loud music, scary video, and hyberbolic rhetoric, but they cannot provide much information in an emergency that’s useful at the local level. Watching cable TV during an event like Irma is like watching a disaster movie – except this time you feel like you’re in it.

As to social media, in a situation like the one we just experienced here, they are invaluable. I had family, friends, neighbors, our property manager, our realtor, and our power company (Florida Power and Light) in my cell phone. I’d signed up my phone number for Red Alert. (I did not receive any alerts during Irma.)

Texting is especially invaluable. Facebook, too. Our entire social network was in constant communication with us by phone, email, Facebook and Twitter before and after. As soon as I woke up Monday morning (at 2:50 am) and realized the coast was clear (figuratively speaking), I started texting everybody I could think of and emailing everybody else. Thanks to our “evil” telecommunications companies (in our case, Frontier and Verizon), lines of communication have remained fully functioning.

Interestingly, I heard nothing from FEMA directly during this period. I only went to the FEMA web site once, as I was getting all the information I needed from our newspaper, SNN, and the Sarasota County government. I’m assuming that our state and local officials were in constant communication with their FEMA regional colleagues.

David and I have had disagreements over which sources to trust. I tend to have more trust in government sources (“authority”) than he does. I’ve had to learn a lot about how government works in my decades of working in Washington. I’m a scholar of the media and know how to sort reliable sources and information from unreliable. David doesn’t trust my knowledge (“authority”). Thanks to my work with scientists who are finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids, predicting their future orbits, and identifying those that might come close to Earth, I have a good understanding of how much uncertainty surrounds long-term predictions.

The same goes for hurricane forecasting. Forecasters were describing in very good detail how much uncertainty was involved in their predictions of Irma’s movement until, perhaps, 24 hours before landfall in Florida (or less). They did a good job of explaining why longer-term predictions were uncertain. Local media accurately reported forecasters’ explanations. But many people can’t get comfortable with uncertainty. What they want to know is: Is my house gonna blow, or not? Forecasters can’t answer that question, nor can anybody else. (My friend Stephanie just a few miles north of us has power. Her neighbor across the street does not. Such a situation is unpredictable.)

It’s going to be the same in the event of a predicted catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth. (First, rest assured that, as of today, no known asteroid is on an impact course with Earth over the next 100 years.) NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and many other federal agencies and departments are already working together to plan for an impact emergency (see the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and the Charter of the Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects). The best laid plans may go awry, though, if public trust in them is not strong. Reliable, informed, trustworthy spokespeople are critical resources in an emergency. It’s a challenge we have to work on.

It’s interesting to think about how differences in thinking about authority, legitimacy, trustworthiness, reliability play out from person to person, family to family, household to household in crisis situations.

During the Irma event, the local news sources I chose to trust did not mislead me or let me down. Monday morning, David was accusing CNN of reporting “fake news” on Sunday….

In terms of trustworthiness, my experience reinforces the idea that people tend to trust family and friends first, local leaders and government next, federal government last. I’m no fan of Governor Scott, but his messages were clear and sensible. I chose to heed them. In this case, I paid no attention to anything that might have been coming out of the White House, as I have no trust in the current administration.

I took a walk on Sunday morning, when all was still calm before the storm. I talked with a woman who was watching a flock of sandhill cranes. She was worried about what would happen to wildlife during the storm. I told her that since animals live outside all the time, they probably have ways of sheltering. We humans must continue to improve our ways of sheltering and taking care of each other, as sea surface warms and sea level rises.

Incoming! Hollywood asteroid-disaster melodrama on the way

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Credit: express.co.uk

Tonight at 9 pm EDT, CBS TV premieres “Salvation,” a “new summer series” revolving around an impending catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth.

Based on what I’ve read and seen about the series – you can watch a 15-minute preview here – it looks to me as if this series might be entertaining, if you’re into doomsday-end-of-the-world stories. But it certainly doesn’t promise to be realistic.

This series promises to be an overblown melodrama, with lots of side stories, focusing, as usual, on romances, conspiracies, and other sorts of political intrigue, and perpetuating a number of myths that appear to be near and dear to Hollywood.

Myth #1: If the U.S. government were to know that an asteroid large enough to cause catastrophic damage to Earth was on a certain impact course, it would keep it a secret from citizens.

Mythbuster #1: Impossible. No known asteroids are predicted to be on an impact course with Earth over the next 100 years. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) funds the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies, which maintains a public record of all known near-Earth objects and predictions of their orbital paths over the next century. The Minor Planet Center, also funded by the PDCO, maintains public records of global asteroid detections and trackings. If an asteroid is detected by one observer at a particular location, and, hypothetically, that observer is an evil scientist who wants to keep it secret, understand that observers all around the world are watching the same sky, and others will find that asteroid. They can’t all be evil, can they? Yes, of course, it’s possible that a previously undetected asteroid could impact Earth – see, for example, the Chelyabinsk asteroid impact event of February 2013. Yes, it’s possible that a previously undetected asteroid large enough to cause serious damage to Earth could be on an impact course. It’s possible that an as-yet-undetected asteroid large enough to cause global damage could be on an impact course with Earth. But we’ve found most of the big ones.

Myth #2: The government would silence/eliminate a scientist who’s trying to tell citizens “the truth.”

Mythbuster #2: My colleagues in NASA’s PDCO wonder whether the MIT asteroid expert who’s “disappeared” in Episode 1 of “Salvation” might be modeled at least in part on our MIT colleague Rick Benzel, who’s a for-real asteroid expert and has been speaking out about asteroid impact hazards for years. Rest assured, Rick is alive and well, and I believe my colleagues in government appreciate his service.

Myth #3: A megalomaniacal billionaire, not world governments, will be our only hope of “salvation” from such a catastrophic event (from the 15-minute preview, this is where I’m guessing the story will go…).

Mythbuster #3: Please. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – not Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson or Nathan Myhrvold (the latter not officially a biollionaire, but nonetheless very rich) – has planetary defense on its radar. With UN endorsement (though not financial support), two multinational groups are coordinating planning for planetary defense again asteroid impacts – the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG). I’ve been to a number of meetings of both groups, and their members are definitely not interested in operating in secret. What they are interested in is pooling their resources to identify impact risks and prepare for defending the planet in the event – which is, as of today, hypothetical – of an impending impact with Earth.

CBS/Hollywood will keep pumping out the drama, but citizens of Earth, know it’s only a story.

International Asteroid Day: who’s doing what?

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Credit: passmyexams.co.uk

As the “Asteroid Day” PR machine is shifting into high gear, let me add some clarity to the buzz. While I’m semi-retired, I’m still doing some consulting work for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which encompasses NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program. The NEO Observations Program funds projects to find, track, and characterize asteroids and identify those that pose a risk of impact with Earth. These NASA-funded projects account for well over 90 percent of NEO detections. No one asked me to write this post.

Asteroid Day, if you’re not already familiar with it, is an annual event that first took place in 2015. A small group of people including two ex-NASA astronauts, a rock-guitarist/scientist, and a science-fiction filmmaker got together a few years back to come up with a way to raise awareness of the hazard of asteroid impacts with Earth. They declared June 30 – the day of the 1908 Tunguska, Siberia, impact event – “Asteroid Day,” and they organized some highly publicized public events to take place on that date. Their first “Asteroid Day” was June 30, 2015. The Asteroid Day team pulled together some big names in science and entertainment and a slew of ex-astronauts and cosmonauts to draw public attention to their cause.

Those events, and the publicity campaign leading up to them, raised some concerns, for me and some of my colleagues in planetary defense. The group’s rhetoric was alarmist – take for example, this quote from AD co-founder Brian May (yes, that Brian May): “The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it became that the human race has been living on borrowed time… Asteroid Day and the 100X Declaration are ways for the public to contribute to an awareness of the Earth’s vulnerability and the realization that Asteroids hit Earth all the time. Asteroid Day would the vehicle to garner public support to increase our knowledge of when asteroids might strike and how we can protect ourselves.”

The 100X Declaration, calling for “A rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years,” was a concern as well. People who were (and are) actually engaged in the endeavor of in finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids told me that no matter how much money might be invested in the endeavor (money that is not, by the way, available), such a goal would be unachievable.

Members of the planetary defense community – including myself – have been in communication with the Asteroid Day team since June 30, 2015, trying to improve the accuracy of their communications. To their credit, they have been doing so.

For example, this is what the Asteroid Day team now has to say about their 100X Declaration: “The 100x is an aspirational goal. Current asteroid survey projects are finding about 1500 asteroids per year that can come near the Earth. It is not likely that we will detect 100 times this number of asteroids per year with our current capabilities.”

I found this content on the Asteroid Day web site preceding June 30, 2015: “Continuing to orbit our solar system without the knowledge of potentially dangerous asteroids in our orbital neighbourhood is equivalent to playing the odds in a game of Las Vegas roulette – only this time, we are betting our families, homes and indeed future generations. The probability of Earth being impacted in a random location by a 100-megaton asteroid in your lifetime is about the same as the probability of you being killed in an automobile accident. These odds on any individual day are small, yet few among us would drive a car without wearing a seat belt. The 100x Asteroid Declaration calls for the discovery and tracking of 100,000 asteroids a year over the next ten years. In addition to protecting our planet, this increased capability will provide dramatically improved knowledge of our Solar System for scientific and other purposes.”

It no longer appears on the web site.

The sort of language that I call “alarmist” still appears on the AD web site here and there. For example, on a page called “asteroid basics,” you’ll see references to “the threat from asteroids” and “the cosmic shooting gallery.”

But overall, the AD crew has toned down the “threat” rhetoric and improved the clarity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness of the information it provides on what we know about the asteroid population and how we find, track and characterize asteroids and identify those that the experts deem “potentially hazardous.” Many thanks to them and especially to all the experts in the NEO science/planetary defense community, most of them funded by NASA or the European Space Agency, who contributed their expertise to this endeavor.

Despite this progress, the mass media love talk of threats and danger, and at least one scientist involved in Asteroid Day 2017 appears to have taken advantage of that proclivity.

A press release put out by Queen’s University-Belfast on June 20 has garnered some attention with its headline, “QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY SCIENTIST WARNS OF ASTEROID DANGER: A leading astrophysicist from Queen’s University Belfast has warned that an asteroid strike is just a matter of time.” The release leads off: “Fitzsimmons…has said it is a case of when an asteroid collision will happen, rather than if it will happen. Joined by…astronauts such as Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart…Fitzsimmons is highlighting the threat for Asteroid Day, a global event next Friday (30 June).”

Fitzsimmons does note, after sounding the alarm, that “scientists and engineers have made great strides in detecting Near-Earth Asteroids and understanding the threat posed by them. Over 1,800 potentially hazardous objects have been discovered so far, but there are many more waiting to be found. Astronomers find Near-Earth Asteroids every day and most are harmless. But it is still possible the next Tunguska would take us by surprise, and although we are much better at finding larger asteroids, that does us no good if we are not prepared to do something about them.”

On June 23, Fox News (among other media outlets) reported on this release: “Earth could be hit by surprise asteroid strike, expert warns.”

I wonder about the intended purpose of this alarmist rhetoric. Is it to draw attention to an individual or institution? If so, it works. Is it to scare people? If so, for shame… Is it – as some propagators of this rhetoric have claimed – to prod governments to invest more money in asteroid detection and planetary defense? If so, it isn’t working.

Here are some everyday-English definitions of some key terms that I recommend:

  • Hazard: potential to cause harm.
  • Risk: assessment of probability and extent of harm.
  • Threat: a declaration of an intention or determination to inflict punishment, injury, etc., in retaliation for, or conditionally upon, some action or course. (LB note: asteroids are inanimate objects. They have no intent.)

Here’s my answer to the question: what is the risk of an asteroid impact with Earth?

“Risk” is a subjective concept. For scientists who study near-Earth asteroids – or near-Earth objects (NEOs) – “risk” is a mathematical calculation. Based on known orbits of a NEO around the Sun, scientists can calculate the future orbital movements of the object and mathematically predict possible close approaches to or impacts with Earth over the next 100 years. These mathematical predictions are couched in considerable uncertainty. As scientists observe more orbits of a NEO, they can gradually reduce the uncertainty surrounding earlier predictions. Once they collect sufficient data on the object, they will be able to either confirm that an impact will occur on a specific date or eliminate the risk of impact.

Another point of clarity: Asteroid Day is not the same thing as International Asteroid Day. On December 6, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution declaring June 30 annually to be International Asteroid Day, “to raise public awareness about the asteroid impact hazard…. International Asteroid Day will encourage reflection on the impact hazard of asteroids and the global work undertaken in this area and facilitated by UNOOSA, including work by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and its Member States, the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group, and the International Asteroid Warning Network. All United Nations Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, other international and regional organizations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organizations and individuals, are invited to observe International Asteroid Day. The UNGA’s decision was made after a proposal by the Association of Space Explorers, which was endorsed by COPUOS.”

Additional points of clarity:

  • The proposal by the Association of Space Explorers was spearheaded by ex-NASA astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu. At the time that they were pushing their proposal to the U.N., they also were engaged in fundraising for their B612 Foundation, which proposed to build and launch a space-based NEO survey telescope, which they called Sentinel. It’s not clear from B612’s “mission” web page whether Sentinel is moving ahead or not.
    • Meanwhile, B612 has partnered with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project to work on asteroid detection. Steve Chesley and Peter Veres of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (funded by the PDCO) have published the results of a two-year study of the projected NEO discovery performance of the LSST. Their paper (JPL Publication 16-11, April 2017) is available on arxiv.org.
  • Danica Remy, co-founder of Asteroid Day, is president of B612. Brian May (yes, that Brian May), is a “strategic advisor” to B612.
  • Neither B612 nor Asteroid Day is participating in the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group or the International Asteroid Warning Network. SMPAG and IAWN are comprised, respectively, of government agencies involved in designing and building space missions and government agencies and other research institutions engaged in the work of finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids.

NASA is not a partner in Asteroid Day, but it is producing an hour of television programming to be aired for Asteroid Day on Friday. This programming will feature researchers funded by NASA as well as some amateur astronomers who are doing the work of finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids and planning for planetary defense. You can watch this programming on NASA TV.

Earth, life, space: how we think about them

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Credit: youtube.com

Though I’m no longer consulting with NASA’s planetary protection office, I still consider myself a member of the planetary protection community, and I’m paying attention to the neoliberal/libertarian drive to loosen up (eliminate, some argue) planetary protection requirements for so-called commercial space missions – robotic or human.

An ad hoc committee of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board is currently engaged in a review of planetary protection policy development processes, and I’m keeping an eye on this project as well as the discourse in the broader space community about planetary protection.

I’ve been reviewing some of the papers I’ve presented or published over the past 10 to 12 years that are relevant to planetary protection, and I’m going to post some of them on this blog.

What follows is a paper I presented at the 23d annual conferences of the International Association for Science, Technology, and Society (February 1, 2008, Baltimore MD). I’ve made some minimal changes to bring the paper up to date.

My intent here is to give you some food for thinking about whether and how the scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial life has affected our conception of the terrestrial biosphere.

From my biased perspective, as a consultant to NASA’s astrobiology program, a scholar of communication, and someone who has worked in the space community for more than 30 years, I propose that the search for life beyond our planet has affected the way we think about our home planet. Can I prove it? No. Can I make a good case for this claim? I think so…. Can I provide a comprehensive explanation of how it has affected our conception of our biosphere? Probably not. But I will try to make my case as best I can….

Background

Scientists have been studying the origins and evolution of life on Earth since the beginnings of what we call science.

Philosophers have been speculating about the possibility of other worlds and life elsewhere since the days of ancient Greece.

Scientists have been searching in earnest for evidence of extraterrestrial life since the beginning of the Space Age.

In the 21st century, the study of the origins and evolution of life on Earth, the origin and evolution of Earth itself and its sister planets, the origins and evolution of life in the universe and the origins and evolution of the universe itself are intricately intertwined.

Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, has made huge strides just in the past 10 years, due to space flight opportunities, new technology, and advances in molecular biology.

Let me quickly review the state of the art in the field of astrobiology….

We still do not know exactly how life began, or precisely where, or when, though theories about the origins of life continue to proliferate, and complexify.

We have learned that life as we know it – that is, carbon-based cellular life – can survive in virtually all terrestrial environmental extremes – nuclear radiation, permafrost, deep subsurface Earth, no sunlight…. Wherever humans or their technological counterparts have gone on Earth, they have found life.

We have learned that microbial life accounts for the majority of biomass on Earth and that most of this microbial biomass is likely beneath the surface of Earth.

Our spacecraft have flown by, orbited around, or landed on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and several of its moons, Saturn and several of its moons, Neptune, and the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons…. And of course we’ve orbited a myriad of spacecraft around Earth to study the home planet. Comparative planetology is now a thriving field. We are now looking at Europa and Enceladus, in addition to Mars, as possible habitats for life….

Thanks to all of these advances, the prospects for finding extraterrestrial life – as we know it, or perhaps as we do not know it – look more promising by the day…

At the same time that research into the origin, evolution, and distribution of life is revealing that life is highly resilient, these same lines of research are helping to reveal how life and its environment are deeply interdependent.

Some key lines of research in this area – for example, the timing and mechanics of the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere of early Earth – have been sponsored by the element of NASA’s astrobiology program now called exobiology and evolutionary biology.

These findings are improving our understanding of life on Earth and prospects for life elsewhere, contributing to understanding of global climate history and evolution, and complexifying the further study of life.

This new understanding of the highly interdependent nature of life and its environment – their co-evolution, as it were – is undoubtedly changing the way we think about our biosphere and our place in it. And when I say “we” I mean both experts and non-experts…. This understanding has a role to play in defining our future on Earth and in space….

What follows is a brief and admittedly idiosyncratic review of the parallel and intersecting histories of the study of life on Earth, space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life, and our understanding of our own biosphere.

The beginnings…

Questions of life – the origin and evolution of life, the fate of life on Earth, the possibility of life elsewhere – have driven space exploration from its beginnings. The search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is and always has been a primary focus of NASA’s planetary exploration program.

Planetary protection – the policy and practice of preventing terrestrial biological contamination of extraterrestrial environments and extraterrestrial biological contamination of Earth – has been a concern of the international science community since the start of the Space Age.

By 1967, spacefaring nations had reached agreement to regulate interplanetary contamination, as articulated in Article IX of the United Nations Outer Space Treaty. The treaty states that exploration of planetary bodies will be conducted “so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter….”

In 1959, NASA funded its first exobiology project, an instrument intended to detect evidence of biological activity on Mars. In 1960 NASA organized an Exobiology Program, to fund studies of the origin and evolution of life on Earth and the search for evidence of life beyond Earth.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, in 1966 environmentalist Stewart Brand (founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly) began a public-awareness campaign aimed at prodding the space community to look at the whole Earth from space. “Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?” Brand was asking, in hopes “that it would stimulate humanity’s interest in its mega-habitat” (Brand, 2007).

The first time U.S. astronauts saw and took pictures of “Earthrise” from space, capturing Earth and its Moon in a single frame from lunar orbit, was on the Apollo 8 mission in 1967. The common wisdom is that the advent of the human ability to see the Earth in its entirety from space helped to inspire Earth Day and the environmental movement.

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated.

It was not until Apollo 17 in 1972 that NASA astronauts produced the now-iconic photo of the whole Earth from space, appearing alone in the void (Maher, 2004).

Environmental historian Neil Maher has argued that NASA’s 1967 “Earthrise” photo and its 1972 “Whole Earth” photo played key roles in two opposing cultural narratives. The “Earthrise” photo was one of “a long line of photographs enlisting nature to support American expansion at home and abroad…. By figuratively depicting [President John F.] Kennedy’s New Frontier in its sloping lunar surface, the Apollo 8 photograph helped extend America’s Manifest Destiny into the ultimate wilderness—outer space.” NASA’s 1972 “Whole Earth” photo “tells a different story,” replacing “the idea of the American frontier with a vision of non-American nature…an image of a more global natural environment” (ibid.).

Also in 1972, NASA launched Landsat I, the first element of a system of Earth observation satellites. The Landsat satellites, and other space-based earth-observing systems after it, have produced a more or less continuous view of the surface of Earth and its oceans over more than three decades.

We now take for granted the ability to see any place on Earth, any time, from space: fires in the Brazilian rainforest, flooding in south Asia, polar ice loss….

NASA’s Viking landers, launched to Mars in 1976, included three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life. Though the consensus is that those experiments did not find any evidence of biological activity on Mars, some scientists are still arguing over the meaning of the results. (This dispute persists in large part because scientists have been unable to agree on a precise definition of what life is (and is not).)

In 1977, Stewart Brand initiated a public debate, in CoEvolution Quarterly, about expanding human presence into space. Colonizing space “will be as momentous as the atomic bomb,” Brand declared. With space colonization, “our perspective is suddenly cosmic, our Earth tiny and precious, and our motives properly suspect…. If we can learn to successfully manage large complex ecosystems in the Space Colonies, that sophistication could help reverse our destructive practices on Earth. And if we fail…then we will have learned something as basic as Darwin about our biosphere – that we cannot manage it, that it manages us” (Brand, 1977, p. 72).

Also in 1977, in the world of science, biophysicist Carl Woese and colleagues announced in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they had identified a new branch of life on Earth, called archaea. The New York Times reported on these findings, and history was made.

These scientists redrew the tree of life, depicting the evolution of life by genetic rather than structural relationships. The research that led to this momentous discovery was sponsored by NASA’s exobiology program.

In 1979, chemist James Lovelock unveiled his Gaia hypothesis, positing that Earth and all of its life are an integrated super-organism.

“My first thoughts about Gaia,” Lovelock says, came earlier in the 1970s “when I was working in [the] biosciences division of the [NASA] Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where we were concerned with the detection of life on other planets” (Lovelock, 1988, p. xvi) and working on plans for the Viking mission to Mars.

The Gaia hypothesis, according to Lovelock, “forces a planetary perspective. It is the health of the planet that matters, not…some…individual species” (p. xvii).

Also in 1979, Science magazine published a report of the discovery of life in hydrothermal vent systems of the Galapagos Rift (Corliss, et al, 1979). This discovery marked a major advance in scientific understanding of life. Not only was life thriving in environmental conditions considered inhospitable, but also this life depended on chemicals (chemosynthesis), not sunlight (photosynthesis), to survive.

The study of what we now call extremophilic life subsequently took off….

In the early 1980s, scientists working in the field of exobiology called on NASA to broaden its study of the evolution of complex biological systems on Earth to examine the evolution of complex life in the context of space. That is, NASA research into the origin and evolution of life should address “the effects of properties of the universe as a whole upon the evolutionary processes occurring on a planet’s surface” (Milne, et al, 1985, p. 2). NASA took heed.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued its now-famous report, “Our Common Future,” on sustainable development. “In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time,” the Commission noted in its report.
“Historians may eventually find that this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century…. From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its activities into that pattern is changing planetary systems, fundamentally. Many such changes are accompanied by life-threatening hazards. This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized – and managed.” The Commission also noted in this report, “We have the power to reconcile human affairs with natural laws and to thrive in the process.”

Several years later, in his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan (1994) observed that while the human ability to see Earth from space has changed the way we think about our home planet, “the connection between exploring other worlds and protecting this one is most evident in the study of Earth’s climate and the burgeoning threat to that climate that our technology now poses. Other worlds provide vital insights about what dumb things not to do on Earth” (p. 221) – for example, atmospheric ozone depletion, greenhouse warming, and the generation of nuclear winter.

In 1996, NASA’s exobiology program was superceded and encompassed by a new astrobiology program, dedicated to the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe (Dick and Strick, 2004)….

To reiterate, astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field now encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.

NASA’s Astrobiology Program addresses three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and, if so, how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe? In striving to answer these questions and improve understanding of biological, planetary, and cosmic phenomena and relationships among them, experts in astronomy and astrophysics, Earth and planetary sciences, microbiol­ogy and evolutionary biology, cosmochemistry, and other relevant disciplines are participating in astrobiology research. In its search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, the Astrobiology Program is funding a wide array of research in molecular ecology and molecular evolution, geared “towards understanding the origins of life and the evolutionary history of organisms on this planet” (Sogin, 1999).

Among “other relevant disciplines,” the social sciences and humanities have an important but as-yet-undeveloped role to play, especially in considering the future of life on Earth and elsewhere.

Conclusions

In light of all these social and scientific developments that I have just described, and many others that I have not described, I conclude that the search for extraterrestrial life has most certainly affected our conception of the biosphere, the way we think about our home planet and our place on (or in) it. Expert and non-expert understanding of life, at the macro and the micro level, is changing, rapidly…..

It would be difficult – though interesting and potentially fruitful – to document exactly how the search for extraterrestrial life has changed the way we think about the biosphere. I cannot do that right now. But I will consider some ways in which the search has altered our perspective.

Considering the biosphere at the microscopic scale, we now know that life teems kilometers beneath the surface of Earth, around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, inside Antarctic rocks and at the bottom of perpetually ice-covered Antarctic lakes, in highly acidic hot springs and radioactive water. Life like us thrives by photosynthesis. Another sort of life on Earth thrives by chemosynthesis. The idea of life in other planetary environments barely requires a leap of imagination these days….

We have recently come to understand that microbial life, extremophilic or otherwise, dominates our biosphere. As astrobiologists have put it, “For more than 3.5 billion years, microbes of untold diversity have dominated every corner of our biosphere” (Sogin and Jennings, 2003).

Microbes play a key role “in geochemical cycling, biodegradation, and the protection of entire ecosystems from environmental insult…they control global utilization of nitrogen through nitrogen fixation, nitrification, and nitrate reduction; and they drive the bulk of carbon, sulfur, iron, and manganese biogeochemical cycles.” Most important to us, “the continued survival of later evolving multicellular plants and animals is completely dependent upon interactions with microorganisms” (ibid.)….

Considering the biosphere at the planetary scale, we now know that the more we explore extraterrestrial environments, the more we learn about how different they are from Earth. And at the same time we find that they are similar, too.

We routinely look at pictures of Earth and other planets taken from space these days and remark upon their resemblances and their differences. We know that planets and planetary environments evolve. We cannot help but think – even believe – that some of these extraterrestrial environments have life….

I have mentioned the role of planetary protection policy in space exploration. Building on the concept of planetary protection and extending our constructions of “nature” and “wilderness” into the solar system, some astrobiologists have advocated the creation of a “planetary park system” to preserve and protect pristine extraterrestrial environments of scientific importance or “natural beauty” from environmental degradation or contamination by terrestrial exploration missions.

Planetary parks would “extend the reasons for practical protection policies beyond the utilitarian protection of scientific resources emphasized by planetary protection, into other utilitarian and intrinsic value arguments” (Cockell and Horneck, 2004, 2006).

The idea of “astroenvironmentalism” has been explored outside the science community as well. The principles of astroenvironmentalism, as detailed by one environmental writer, include “considering space and the celestrial bodies pristine wildernesses that need to be protected,” requiring environmental impact statements for space missions, treating planetary bodies “as wildernesses that need to be protected,” and creating ethical guidelines for protecting life elsewhere (Miller, 2001)….

So our constructions of “environment” and “nature” in what Steven Yearley (2008) calls “advanced modernity” are thus being extended from Earth into space. From an environmentalist perspective, this is a good thing.

Alternatively, the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is affecting our conception of the terrestrial biosphere in a different, conflicting way. There is a trend in the space community, energized in the Reagan era and reinvigorated during the George W. Bush years, toward viewing the solar system as an environment to exploit, as we have with our own planetary environment. From this “dominionist” or “manifest destiny” perspective, our home planet, and our home solar system, are seen as resources here for us to use as we like.

These two opposing perspectives on the place of humans in space are reflective of two parallel and conflicting cultural narratives of space exploration (Billings, 2007): outer space as a sort of supermarket of resources, open to exploitation by whoever gets there first; and outer space as a pristine wilderness to be studied and appreciated but left unaltered.

Rhetorical critic Janice Hocker Rushing speculated that the post-Apollo focus of space exploration on the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is a product of a widespread understanding that humankind exists in a universe, not only on planet Earth. A contemporary narrative of space exploration might better reflect this understanding by telling a story of “a spiritual humbling of self” rather than “an imperialistic grabbing of territory.” Space is too big to be conquered, as Rushing pointed out….

Cultural studies scholar Constance Penley has also examined cultural narratives of space exploration. While noting that “the WASP space cowboy version of spaceflight” has persisted from the Apollo era into the present, Penley has observed that NASA “is still the most popular point of reference for utopian ideas of collective progress.” In the popular imagination, “NASA continues to represent…perseverance, cooperation, creativity and vision,” and these meanings embedded in the cultural narrative of spaceflight “can still be mobilized to rejuvenate the near-moribund idea of a future toward which dedicated people…could work together for the common good”….

The more we look, the more we find that life is everywhere on, and in, Earth. The more we look, the more we find that the basic ingredients for life as we know it are everywhere, not only throughout our solar system but throughout interstellar space. We have also found that much of life on Earth – perhaps the majority of it – is “weird” extremophilic microbial life, adapted to niche environments that humans and their multicellular relatives could not tolerate.

While astrobiologists are identifying biosignatures for detecting extraterrestrial life as we know it – carbon-based, cellular life – they have also begun the task of developing a set of biosignatures to use in searching for signs of life as we do not know it – extraterrestrial weird life – life that does not need water as a solvent, life that is not made of carbon-based compounds (Space Studies Board, 2007).

To wrap up, let me restate my initial question in a somewhat different form….

Without the search for extraterrestrial life, would we have come to understand, as we now have, how life and environment continually shape each other?

My answer is, “I don’t think so.” Though I cannot prove my claim, let me offer the views of a few other experts to back it up.

In the mid-1970s, anthropologist Ashley Montagu told a NASA-sponsored symposium on the subject of “life beyond Earth and the mind of man” that people “are no longer humane beings, but sick persons – a sickness induced by the worship of false values….” Montagu recommended preparing for what he considered to be the eventual discovery of extraterrestrial life “by becoming what you ought to be, by realizing your evolutionary destiny, which is to live as if to live and to love were one” (Berendzen, 1975, p. 26).

In a similar vein, planetary scientist and natural philosopher David Grinspoon (2004) has observed, “We can conceive of a truly intelligent, sustainable communicating society. But we don’t know if we can become one. So we search the skies for confirmation of a hopeful image of ourselves” (p. 414).

Can, does, the search for extraterrestrial life help us humans to figure out how to live together?

Stewart Brand (2007) continues to prod us to think about Earth from the perspective of space. In the scientific journal Nature, he asserted that to better understand our home planet, we must integrate data gathered by Earth-observing satellites with genetic data gathered by microbiologists – a merger of the macro with the micro. “Metagenomics is giving us detailed access to the genes and gene communities of bacteria and archaea,” he wrote.

“A unifying body of data, ideas, models and images of the whole-Earth system could inspire the public and may shift scientific thinking. In studying the energy dynamics of the Earth–Sun system while learning how our microbial partners manage to keep this planet comfortably terraformed for life, we would begin to step up to the full meaning of Earth stewardship.”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben (2007) has considered how space exploration has broadened his perspective on our home planet. “This may come as less of a shock to others, but it’s my own recent discovery: we live on a planet,” he wrote in Orion magazine.

NASA’s Apollo images of Earth from space, he said, “seemed designed to shock us into seeing that the world we knew was finite, that we had been born onto a lovely oasis…we should protect at all costs.”

In McKibben’s opinion, however, this view “didn’t take…we’ve done more to damage the planet in the decades since that picture appeared than in all of human history before that.”

From a different perspective, political scientist Walter McDougall (2007) has considered how space exploration and the search for life elsewhere has affected our views of life on Earth and come to the same conclusion as McKibben. That is, we are not getting the message.

“The greatest icon bequeathed by space technology” to humankind thus far, McDougall claims, is the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo. “It has become a cliche to observe how Earthrise inspired environmentalists since it vividly depicted our biosphere as finite and fragile….”

Just as important as this new perspective on our biosphere, he says, “was the urgent if obvious revelation that the natural, holistic earth seen from space is free of political, racial, and religious boundaries. The sum of those two perceptions must be a Spaceship Earth mentality transcending mundane considerations of geopolitics and geoeconomics.”

But “no such transcendence has begun to occur,” McDougall concludes. “Even after the end of the Cold War, so often blamed for perverting the dream, astronautics has worked no metamorphosis, no paradigm shift, in human behavior. Conceptions of extraterrestrial worlds as our property to exploit and as pristine environments to protect are in competition for a central role in U.S. space policy.”

Twenty years ago, environmental philosopher Eugene Hargrove (1986) predicted, “It is not unlikely that the environmental movement…will split into warring camps over the issue of resources exploitation of the Solar System…some environmentalists will decide that we should exploit [these] resources…to the full in order to bring resource exploitation on Earth as close to an end as reasonably possible; others will conclude that such resource exploitation is simply a continuation of improper environmental policies long pursued on this planet” (pp. xi-xii).

Current discourse about our future in space addresses this important ideological issue, but, regrettably, the environmental community is not engaged in the discussion. Nor is the STS community, to my knowledge.

In the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Steven Yearley notes that environmental studies are critical to STS because they provide “key insights into the status of ‘the natural’ in advanced modernity” (p. 921)….

He concludes that science and technology studies have has become the primary scholarly means of “understanding ‘knowing nature’ in conditions of advanced modernity” (p. 940).

In this presidential election year, when space policy issues are in the public eye, scholars of science, technology, and society can contribute to the public discourse on these issues – and perhaps even build a needed bridge between environmentalists and the space community – by expanding the boundaries of their conceptions of “environment” and “nature” to encompass outer space, where humans are venturing more frequently and more invasively.

Can our vision of a human future in space become a vision of humanity’s peaceful co-existence on Spaceship Earth and the need to work together to preserve life here and look for life out there?

In conclusion, I would argue that developing new perspectives on our home planet and the place of, and for, life on it is perhaps the only sound rationale for continuing a government-funded space exploration program in the early 21st century. The search for extraterrestrial life can help humans to feel at home in the universe, fostering a sense of belonging. As it did in “Star Trek: Voyager,” the search can encourage us to care about our home.

I encourage the STS community to consider how the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is affecting our understanding of biospheres (terrestrial and extraterrestrial) and how this understanding might help to shape space exploration policy and plans.

Which cultural narrative will it be? The human conquest and exploitation of extraterrestrial environments, at the expense of extraterrestrial life if need be? Or careful robotic exploration, preserving pristine extraterrestrial environments for their own sake, with or without life?
References

Berendzen, Richard (ed.). Life beyond Earth and the mind of man: a symposium held at Boston University on November 20, 1972. Washington, D.C.: Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1973).

Billings, Linda. Ideology, advocacy, and spaceflight: evolution of a cultural narrative, 483-499, in Dick, Steven J. and Launius, Roger D., eds., Societal Impact of Spaceflight (NASA SP-2007-4801). Washington, D.C.: History Division, Office of External Relations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2007).

Billings, Linda. To the Moon, Mars, and beyond: culture, law, and ethics in spacefaring societies. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 26(5), 430-437 (2006).

Brand, Stewart (ed.). Space colonies: a CoEvolution book. New York: Penguin Books (1977).

Brand, Stewart. Whole earth comes into focus. Nature 450, 797 (2007).

Cockell, Charles S. and Horneck, Gerda. Planetary parks – formulating a wilderness policy for planetary bodies. Space Policy 22(4), 256-262 (2006).

Cockell, Charles and Horneck, Gerda. A Planetary Park system for Mars. Space Policy 20(4), 291-295 (2004).

Corliss, John B., et al. Submarine thermal springs on the Galapagos Rift. Science 203, 1073-1083 (1979).

Dick, Steven J. and Strick, James E. The living universe: NASA and the development of astrobiology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (2004).

Grinspoon, David. Lonely planets: the natural philosophy of alien life. New York: HarperCollins (2003, 2004).

Hackett, Edward J., et al. (eds). Handbook of science and technology Studies (3d ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

Hargrove, Eugene C. (ed.). Beyond Spaceship Earth: environmental ethics and the solar system. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1986.

Lemonick, Michael D. Other worlds: the search for life in the universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Lovelock, James. The ages of Gaia: a biography of our living Earth. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.

Maher, Neil. Neil Maher on shooting the Moon. Environmental History July 2004. http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/eh/9.3/maher.html (28 Jan. 2008).

McDougall, Walter A. The Space Age that never arrived: a meditation on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik 1. Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, November 2007. Http://www.fpri.org/enotes/200711.mcdougall.sputnikanniversary.html.

McKibben, Bill. Planet protectors: the campaign for global security needs you. Orion, July/August 2007. Http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/317/.

Miller, Ryder W. Astroenvironmentalism: the case for space exploration as an environmental issue. Electronic Green Journal 15, December 2001.

Milne, David, et al (eds.). The evolution of complex higher organisms: summary of proceedings of the ECHO Science Workshops held in July 1981 and May 1982 (NASA-SP478). Washington, DC: Scientific and Technical Information Branch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1985.

Pellegrino, Charles R. and Stoff, Jesse A. Darwin’s universe: origins and crises in the history of life (2d ed.). Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books Inc., 1986.

Penley, Constance. Spaced out: remembering Christa McAuliffe. Camera Obscura 29 (January): 179-213, pp. 207-208 (1992).

Rummel, J.D. and Billings, L. Issues in planetary protection: policy, protocol, and implementation. Space Policy 20(1), pp. 49-54.
Sagan, Carl. Pale blue dot: a vision of the human future in space. New York: Random House, 1994.

Rushing, Janice Hocker. Mythic evolution of “The New Frontier” in mediated rhetoric. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3(3): 265-96, quotes from p. 284 (1986).

Sayre, Caroline. The Time 100: Tullis Onstott. Time, April 30, 2007. http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1595329_1615985,00.html.

Sogin, Mitchell L. Concluding remarks. Biological Bulletin 196, pp. 415-416, June 1999.

Sogin, Mitchell L. and Jennings, Diana E. Introduction. Biological Bulletin 204, p. 159, April 2003.

Space Studies Board, National Research Council. The limits of organic life in planetary systems. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press (2007).

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our common future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Yearley, Steven. Nature and the environment in science and technology studies, pp. 921-947 in Hackett, E.J. et al, eds., Handbook of science and technology studies (3d ed.), Cambridge, MA:

 

Report from the New World: Sarasota

 

walking pathPhoto: my walking path

Last week David and I moved from Arlington, Virginia, to Sarasota, Florida. This blog post is mainly for my family and friends rather than for my regular blog readers. I’ll get back to my “scholarly” blogging soon, and I’ll probably start a new blog for reports from our new home and city. But for now, here’s a quick report.

me outsidePhoto: Our new home

We are renting a home with a pool/lanai. It’s so quiet here! And so clean… I have a two-mile walking path through the community, and, I swear, in a week I haven’t seen a single piece of trash on the ground –not a cigarette butt or a gum wrapper, nothing, nada.

The landscape is so lush – hard for me to believe that Florida is in a drought. The homes are so beautiful (no McMansions in this neighborhood, no tear-downs, no construction…).

D on lanai

Photo: David on the lanai

I wake up to a mockingbird singing outside the lanai. On my two-mile morning walk I see ducks and cormorants and herons (large and small) and egrets. Squirrels. Crows. No sparrows as yet…. I’ve seen plenty of “Caution, alligators” signs around the ponds, but no ‘gators so far. Lots of little lizards – they are very efficient carnivores, because I see no insects here. I have yet to see even a housefly. I’ve been outside one or two hours day and haven’t been bitten by anything.

bird

Photo: Seen on my morning walk today

Everyone we’ve met is so NICE. Helpful. Our neighbors across the street are from Boston, our neighbors next door are from Brooklyn. Rod (from Colorado) at Ace Hardware, around the corner, is a fount of information. I found the Sunday New York Times at the 7-11 a mile away.

At the 7-11, I was introduced to two new friends by means of my bumper stickers. When I came out of the store, a couple were standing by my car. They asked, “Is this your car?” Yes. “We love your bumper stickers!” They are: WPFW-FM – DC’s “jazz and justice” community radio station; “War is not the answer” (Friends Committee), “Media buy the people,” “I support compassion over killing” (advocacy for vegetarianism), “No big media,” “All of the planets, all of the time” (NASA’s planetary protection program). Turns out these people – B and H – live not only in my neighborhood but also on my street. B works for the Sarasota Democrats. H asked if I work for NASA (yes). He’s an astronomer. Both are left-leaning Democrats. I said I lean so far left I almost fall over. B said she’s already fallen….

diningPhoto: Our dining set, ca. 1975

We’ve shopped at Habitat for Humanity Restore (where everyone is so NICE, and helpful)– bought a beautiful dining set, made in 1975, perfect condition. Yay!

We have a fitness center down the street. Water aerobics, stretching and toning, balance work – no excuses! I’m joining today.

What do I miss about Arlington? My friends.

Do I miss the constant roar of aircraft taking off from National Airport, every day from 6 am to 11 pm? No.

Do I miss the constant din of digging up neighborhood streets, felling and chipping beautiful old trees, leaf-blowers in chorus? No.

Do I miss rude drivers and hideous traffic? No.

Do I miss rude people, people in a hurry, pushy people in lines? No. Do I miss standing in line? No. (Haven’t encountered one here yet.)

Do I miss overpriced everything? No.

All I miss – and will continue to miss – are my friends. And to my dear friends, I want to say that when you’re tired of shoveling snow and fighting traffic, come on down!

house for sale

Photo: This house, a mile from our place, is for sale at $499,000. What do you get? Four bedrooms, three baths, three-car garage, pool/lanai, a one-acre lot. (Come on down!)

More on the search for signs of extraterrestrial life

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Credit: huffingtonpost.com

Yesterday I reported on a workshop held a few months ago on how to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Today I’ll report on some other workshops and meetings in recent months that have addressed the same topic, one way or another. The National Academies’ Space Studies Board Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) received briefings on these activities yesterday.

The gist of yesterday’s discussions is that as time goes on, planetary exploration (inside and outside our solar system) is becoming more and more focused on looking for habitable environments and signs of extraterrestrial life. Not that we know everything we need to know about planets in our solar system and in other star systems – but it looks like the search for ET life is what will be driving planetary exploration over the next several decades (or more).

Steve Mackwell, corporate director of science programs for the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), reported to CAPS on a “Planetary Science Vision 2050” workshop held at NASA headquarters last month. “Where do we come from? Are we alone, are we unusual? Where are we going” were the threads that knit together discussions at the workshop, Mackwell said.

“Life” turned out to be a major theme of the workshop, he said – to such an extent that it “is an understatement” to say that some members of the planetary science community are concerned that a disproportionate amount of NASA’s science funding – both for missions and for research and analysis – could be devoted to the search for ET life.

Amy Simon, a senior scientist in the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, briefed CAPS on NASA’s Ice Giant Mission Science Definition Team activities. This group has been studying concepts for missions to Uranus and Neptune.

These two ice giants are largely unexplored. (NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus in 1986 and by Neptune in 1989.) They are not only different from the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn but also different from each other. The SDT agrees that “both are equally important” to study, Simon said. “Ideally you’d do a mission to both,” but the cost of such a mission would be high.

(NASA’s already planning an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa (Europa Clipper, and NASA’s Europa Lander Science Definition Team issued its report last month.)

Jim Kasting reported on the Space Studies Board’s workshop on “searching for life across space and time,” which I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post.

Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, told CAPS about a proposed SSB follow-on study of the search for life in the universe: “astrobiology science strategy and the current state of extraterrestrial life detection.”

Voytek explained that the fiscal year 2017 NASA authorization bill, signed into law last week, directs NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to:

  • Task the National Academies with developing a strategy for the study and exploration of extrasolar planets and delivering it to Congress by September 2018 (Section 508).
  • Report to Congress by September 2017 on how NASA plans to expand public-private partnerships in astrobiology (Section 510).
  • Task the National Academies with developing a science strategy for astrobiology and delivering it to Congress by September 2018 (Section 509).
    • NASA’s charge to the National Academies for this latter project reads: “In preparation for the upcoming decadal surveys in astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science, the National Academy of Sciences will appoint an ad hoc committee to carry out a study of the state of the science of astrobiology as it relates to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems.”
    • This study will “outline key scientific and technology challenges in astrobiology particularly as they pertain to the search for life in the Solar System and extrasolar planetary systems; should accommodate the overlap with the Exoplanet Exploration study in the area of assessing habitability and search for signs of life; identify the most promising research goals in the field of life detection in which progress is likely in the next 20 years; consider the role of…partnerships in furthering the to study life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe [and how to expand partnerships]; indicate the extent to which U.S. and international missions and telescopes in operation or in development address the key research goals; and make recommendations on the above as appropriate.”
      • (LB note: IMHO this is a huge task to accomplish in 18 months. Good luck!)
      • (Another note: In 2001, the SSB issued a report on a 2000 workshop on life detection techniques. In 2002, it published a report on its examination of U.S. and international programs in astrobiology. In 2005, it published a report on the astrophysical context for life. You can find these reports here. With so much progress made in these areas over the past 10-15 years, it’s time for some updates.)

The NASA astrobiology program published a science strategy in 2015, developed in consultation with about 800 members of the science community. As noted in the charge detailed above, the new National Academies strategy will build on the 2015 strategy. It also will take into consideration the results of several other workshops and initiatives:

  • An exoplanet biosignatures workshop held in July 2016.
  • A meeting hosted at NASA headquarters September 7-9, 2016, “Agnostic biosignatures: recognizing life as we don’t know it.”
  • A workshop hosted by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, September 12-14, 2016, “Biosignatures of extant life on ocean worlds.”
  • The SSB’s December workshop, “Searching for life across space and time.”
  • The Europa Lander Science Definition Team report published last month.
  • The NASA Ocean Worlds Exploration Roadmap, developed by NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (forthcoming this year).
  • NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative, established in 2015.

The timeline for producing the new astrobiology strategy , Voytek said, is:

  • April – June 2017 – Engagement with National Academies, negotiation of study terms, establishment of contract.
  • June 2017 – June 2018 – conduct of Astrobiology Strategy Study.
  • June – September 2018 – draft study report, peer review as deemed appropriate, submission of report to NASA.
  • September 2018 – NASA submits report to Congress.

When I think about all the work going on in the planetary science community, the same thoughts run through my mind: so much talent, so many good ideas, so many science questions to answer, so limited the budget. (And today I’m thinking that the humongous addition proposed by the White House this year to the already-super-humongous Defense Department budget could fund a Europa lander, a Uranus orbiter-probe, a Neptune orbiter-probe, a space-based near-Earth object survey telescope, a mission to Venus, a Mars sample return mission including ground-based sample return facility, and then some. Sigh.)

In closing, I’d like to mention a new book written by two genius scientists, D. Eric Smith, a member of the faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, and biologist Harold J. Morowitz (b. 1927-d. 2016): The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

According to Amazon: “Uniting the conceptual foundations of the physical sciences and biology, this groundbreaking multidisciplinary book explores the origin of life as a planetary process. Combining geology, geochemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, evolution and statistical physics to create an inclusive picture of the living state, the authors develop the argument that the emergence of life was a necessary cascade of non-equilibrium phase transitions that opened new channels for chemical energy flow on Earth. This…book…provides a well-ordered and accessible introduction to multiple literatures outside the confines of disciplinary specializations, as well as including an extensive bibliography to provide context and further reading. For researchers, professionals entering the field or specialists looking for a coherent overview, this text brings together diverse perspectives to form a unified picture of the origin of life and the ongoing organization of the biosphere.”

I’m familiar enough with the work of the authors to say that they’re both deep thinkers – philosophers of biology, in a way. “The fourth geosphere” is the biosphere. I haven’t read the book yet, but just reading the table of contents gives me an idea of the “deepness” of this book. They write of life as a planetary process, the many forms of order that are fundamental in Earth’s biosphere today, the scales of living processes, the cascade of disequilibria in which stellar and planetary systems operate…and so on…. (You can read the TOC, preface, and epilogue on amazon.com.)

Here’s a little sample from their preface:

“For human minds in society, professional disciplines have been the portals to expertise, but the emergency of the biosphere was not a respecter of human silos. Few readers who have spent a lifetime becoming experts in geochemistry, biochemistry, or microbiology will have happened across the fact that the theory of robustness in non-equilibrium systems continues seamlessly to the mathematics of asymptotically optimal error correction. Yet this continuity must have been fundamental to the emergence of hierarchical architecture capable of memory and control over metabolism on the route from minerals to cells.”

Some of us in the astrobiology community like to describe astrobiology as a transdisciplinary field, on beyond inter- or multi-disciplinary, in a sense. As Smith and Morowitz are suggesting, the origin (or origins) and nature of life on Earth are so complex that they cannot be grasped within the boundaries of disciplinary research. For astrobiologists and those who are (like me) deeply interested in it, this book is likely a must-read.