Astrobiology in the news

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Credit: http://www.solstation.com

Astrobiology remains a popular subject for mainstream and “new” media, as evidenced by several recent features, ranging from lovely to puzzling.

In the June issue of The Atlantic magazine, Harry Stevens writes about “Where life is: the search for a planet like ours.” This thoughtful exposition of the search for habitable planets orbiting stars other than our Sun – extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short – focuses in particular on the work of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), a multinational team of researchers led by Victoria Meadows at the University of Washington and supported by grants from the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

“The harder we look, the more familiar the galaxy grows,” Stevens notes. Exoplanet discoveries now numbering in the thousands, and growing, “have rendered science writers dizzy.” Indeed. As Stevens explains in his story, it appears that there’s no such thing as a typical planet or even a typical exoplanet system. Astrobiologists are grappling with whether and how to redefine their concept of a “habitable zone” around a star.

At National Geographic magazine, astrobiology is on the cover of the July issue (now available online). “The hunt for life beyond Earth,” by seasoned science writer Michael Lemonick (author of the 1999 book Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe and the 2012 book Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin), is an engaging primer on the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. I especially enjoyed reading about the adventures of my friend Penny Boston, one of several scientists featured in the piece. (Penny studies snottites – if you don’t know what they are, read the story.) While I have not yet seen the print version of this story, I can tell you that the online version is gorgeously illustrated with photos by Mark Thiessen.

Both Stevens and Lemonick mark the beginning of the field of exoplanet searching at the 1995 announcement of the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, an exoplanet orbiting the sunlike star 51 Pegasi, around 50 light years from Earth. I tend to think of Aleksander Wolszczan’s 1992 report of planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257 as the first discovery of planets beyond our solar system (A. Wolszczan and D.A. Frail, A planetary system around the millisecond pulsar PSR1257 + 12, Nature 355, January 9, 1992). One could argue that the field of exoplanet searching was born even earlier, in 1984, with the first published report of a protoplanetary disk around another star, Beta Pictoris – a discovery that drew considerable public attention, as I recall (B.A. Smith and R.J. Terrile, A circumstellar disk around β Pictoris, Science 226, 4681, December 21, 1984). “It seems likely that the system is relatively young and that planet formation either is occurring now around β Pictoris or has recently been completed,” this paper noted.

Meanwhile, CQ Researcher has produced a 24-page in-depth report (behind a pay wall) on astrobiology. “The search for life on new planets: are distant worlds habitable?”, compiled by Marcia Clemmitt, addresses “the issues,” some history and chronology, the current situation, and the outlook for astrobiology. “The issues” are posed as questions: “Is complex life rare in the universe? Should the search for extraterrestrial life focus on Earthlike planets? Should the search for life rely on robotic missions?”

And then there’s this month’s Mashable Spotlight report, “Why the path to aliens, ironically, begins on Earth,” an unusual take on astrobiology. Writer Neil Ungerleider observes that astrobiologists “search for origins of life on other planets, but astrobiology also uncovers new forms of Earth life we’ve never imagined before. The scientific tools to do so are advancing faster than ever, and as outer space travel increasingly becomes the domain of SpaceX and other private companies, NASA and foreign space agencies are focusing more resources on inner astrobiology. Specifically, the study of and uses for alien-like life on Earth.”

“Turns out, the study of alien life and life’s origins has huge industrial applications here on Earth,” he continues. “The alien catch-22. The search for E.T. depends just as much on heavy industry or big health care as it does on NASA.”

As I said, it’s an unusual take.

Finally, I’ll mention a – well, I’d call it a nutty story in The Independent, a U.K. newspaper not classified as a tabloid but sounding like one in this instance. Under a headline declaring, “Nasa to send astronauts one million miles into space to build world’s most-powerful telescope in hunt for alien life,” the paper reports, “Scientists have announced plans to build a telescope that may give us clues to whether alien life exists on planets millions of miles away. The Atlast, or Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope, will be the most powerful telescope in the world and will be able to analyse atmospheres of planets and solar systems up to 30 light years away.”

The Independent reported that Royal Astronomical Society President Martin Barstow would make an announcement about this project at a meeting in the U.K. this week. I checked the Society’s Web site and found a June 22 press release, “Time to think big: a call for a giant space telescope.” Here’s what it says: “In the nearly 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers and the public alike have enjoyed ground-breaking views of the cosmos and the suite of scientific discoveries that followed. The successor to HST, the James Webb Space Telescope should launch in 2018 but will have a comparatively short lifetime.Now Prof Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester is looking to the future. In his talk at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) in Portsmouth on Tuesday 24 June, he calls for governments and space agencies around the world to back the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST), an instrument that would give scientists a good chance of detecting hints of life on planets around other stars.”

While I could have missed something, it does not appear that the National Research Council’s last decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics, published in 2010, identifies ATLAST as a priority. Given humongous cost overruns and schedule delays on the James Webb Telescope and projections of a flat budget for the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine NASA taking the lead on a mega-scale project such as ATLAST, especially on Barstow’s timeline to launch in 2030. I doubt that NASA or any other space agency will be capable of sending people a million miles from Earth to assemble a telescope in space by 2030.

I could be wrong, of course. I’m just sayin’….

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