Interview with Michael Meyer

In a recent interview with Kathleen Connell of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA, Michael Meyer discusses the past, present, and future of NASA’s Astrobiology program.

image from 2001 Mars Odyssey
NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft has already sent back several images from Mars.
Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Arizona State University

KATHLEEN – Michael, please give me your official title and tell me a little bit about your background and how you got involved with Astrobiology.

MICHAEL – I’m the Astrobiology discipline scientist at Headquarters; I also am the program scientist for the Mars 2001 Odyssey Mission. It’s kind of interesting, actually – I mean, how do you end up working in an area that’s as fun as Astrobiology? I was told that I should be an engineer since I was good at math, so I went to RPI as an engineer.

I just decided one year that I didn’t really like engineering. I don’t know why…it just wasn’t exciting enough. Biology was much more interesting.

KATHLEEN – Oh, excellent.

MICHAEL – I switched over to biology. It was a very exciting time; for instance, when I took cell biology we had three textbooks that were published that year and all three of them were already out of date.

After I graduated I applied to graduate school. I went into oceanography partly because I’ve always enjoyed the ocean. At the end of my freshman year in college I got hired as a deck hand on a treasure salvaging operation off the coast of Florida. I ended up doing all sorts of things, including going to the Antarctic on a couple of cruises.

At first it seems like an amazing stretch to go from oceanography to mountains of Antarctica’, but, actually, algae are aquatic organisms whether or not they’re in marine and freshwater environments or on land, because they don’t do anything unless they have water. That’s how I got into the whole cold desert’ research area, and into looking at microorganisms in extreme environments.

KATHLEEN – What did you think when you first came across the concept of astrobiology; where you propose to look at the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe?

MICHAEL – Well, the exobiology program at NASA was already in existence and had focused on origin of life on Earth’ as a model for understanding the probabilities of life elsewhere. Astrobiology seemed like a natural extension of that. By using the term ‘astrobiology’, it was understandable how the research that was being done, and the research that needed to be done, fit into the grand scheme of exploring planets or looking for planets around other stars.

KATHLEEN – Yeah. It’s interesting how just a slight shift in focus is able to be generative in terms of refreshing a whole discipline.

MICHAEL – Yes, and in capturing the public interest.

Also, when it became obvious that archae was actually a third branch of life, the model for what is life on earth’ changed. There are three types of organisms: bacteria, eukaryotes, and archae, which–how do I describe an archae? It’s a different branch of life that looks sort of like bacteria, but they’re not. They inhabit, or tend to inhabit, extreme environments and low oxygen environments, certainly, but not necessarily.

KATHLEEN Now, Mars could be considered just another extreme environment in our solar system’s neighborhood, and is this the connection between NASA’s interest in Mars and extreme environments here on Earth?

ALH84001
This photograph was taken during the initial processing of ALH84001.
Credit: NASA

MICHAEL – You make a good connection. The Alan Hills Mars meteorite focused attention on the idea that there might be life outside of Earth, possibly within our own solar system. The important thing is that it wasn’t a crazy idea. It was – and it IS reasonable. We now find organisms that live in extreme environments that we didn’t even suspect twenty years ago, and we just determined for sure that there’s a whole third branch of life (archae) that we didn’t even recognize as being here on Earth. Also, we have members of the National Academy of Sciences saying, "Yeah, it’s not unreasonable to think that, even now, there still could be life on Mars". It is certainly reasonable to think it might have started there.

KATHLEEN – It’s natural that something living and alive would be of greater interest to the public, perhaps, than what might be perceived as cold, dead rocks in space…

MICHAEL – Yeah. Something alive has a greater value.

KATHLEEN – Right, and if you fuse that with the interest in space that people share, you’ve got a very powerful twinning’ of ideas.

MICHAEL Yes, and we now have the capabilities to go to other planetary surfaces and do some real experiments. Also, of sending telescopes into space, not quite yet, that can actually look at other planets around other stars. It really underlines the fact that we now have the tools that can tell us whether or not we’re alone.

KATHLEEN – How did it come about that astrobiology became the reason for being’ for the next series of Mars spacecrafts that are planned, or those that are in the pipeline?

MICHAEL – The way to explore Mars when you’re looking for life, either past or present, is to have a step-wise process where you ask very general questions; and the answers lead you to what would be the next question to ask. This moved the whole idea of looking for life on Mars to more of an idea of looking for environments that could have supported it. All of the sudden you’re talking about geochemistry. You’re talking about hydrology you’re asking the question, "where is the water?" You’re looking at the geologic history of the planet. You’re looking at, "what was the past climate?" You’re looking at atmospheric modeling. So the things that you need to know – whether or not life was even possible, or where it could have been – brings in the majority of the planetary sciences.

KATHLEEN – What you’re describing is building the basis for a multidisciplinary approach and an ecological approach, as well as the evolutionary approach, which are some of the things that characterize the evolution of exobiology to astrobiology.

MICHAEL – To have astrobiology emerge as a multidisciplinary, or metadisciplinary area of study, bringing in these different disciplines, just seemed perfectly natural because you can’t understand life, or the potential for life, without understanding the environment.

KATHLEEN What do you do day to day with respect to the science of astrobiology?

Europa cryobot
This artist rendering shows a proposed ice-penetrating cryobot and a submersible hydrobot that could be used to explore the ice-covered ocean on Jupiter’s large satellite, Europa.
Credit: NASA

MICHAEL – Part of what I do is to look at what we’re doing now and try to project what we need to be doing in the future. A good example would be that we now have a very robust Mars exploration program and we’re going to have missions going there every twenty-six months. So the question is, "what sort of things should astrobiology have ready to participate in these up-and-coming missions?" That lays out, in some ways, a framework of what kind of instruments you need and other considerations. Or if you look at Europa, which, we think, has a liquid ocean underneath its frozen surface, "what sort of tools do you need to explore that environment and understand whether or not life ever started there?" That lays out a research program in terms of the things you need to know about life, or life in the extremes.

KATHLEEN – In terms of conveying data, have you thought much about information technology and the future of the program?

MICHAEL – With information technology I see two areas where I think it’d be particularly critical. First, when you start talking about different disciplines you see they have different languages. So one of the things would be to look at how information can be connected and understood between different disciplines. The other area may be to develop a more robust autonomy — where your robot, with profper sensors, can be aware of its environment to the extent that it can start to explore more on its own.

KATHLEEN – The genomics project at NIH has spent a lot of time and effort understanding the social impacts of genomics research. Do you think we should be undertaking some sociology research related to astrobiology as a part of the astrobiology program at some point?

MICHAEL – One of the issues of how we view ourselves in a universe depends a lot on whether or not we think we’re alone in the universe. The whole idea of looking at how life as it started on Earth – all of these raise questions that have an impact on society’s thinking. There is also the issue of the possibility that we may transfer microbes to another planet and potentially contaminate the other planet, as well as addressing the question of "what do we need to do to ensure that sample return is safe and what does society think about this?" So, there’re a lot of issues that astrobiology impinges on society. But I don’t think it’s to the same degree as genomics research, which opens up the possibilities of genetic engineering. THERE, it’s not just society’s view of the world, they’re impacted directly and there can be good and bad consequences.

KATHLEEN – Our view in the universe has been shifting throughout history, and people are becoming more and more immune to reacting to it, whereas they reacted heavily to the Big Bang theory, which concerns origin’ of the Universe. But it doesn’t mean astrobiology doesn’t affect overall culture nevertheless. Even if there isn’t near-term upheaval because of it – as many theorists have envisioned. (Laugh)

MICHAEL – I suspect that society will change, but it won’t be over-night, because you can’t change your perspective over-night — perception of change is gradual.

KATHLEEN – The hypothesis of astrobiology is that there probably IS life elsewhere in the universe, Earth-like or not. Although astrobiology includes intelligent life, today we’re really talking about microbial life, the kind you scrape off your boot, not the kind you shake hands with. Can you take a guess about how many years it will take to verify the living universe proposition?

MICHAEL – I think it’s very much a numbers game in that, if you ask me, "Is there life in the Universe besides Earth", I’d say, "Most definitely." This is simply because there’s ten to the eleven stars in the galaxy and ten to the eleven galaxies in the universe. How can there not be one other world that can harbor life and has already had life, and is totally new? That is almost a faith statement, but it involves pretty huge numbers. Okay. Now, how are we going to prove that my hypothesis is true? The difficulty is that the universe is a big place; so then the question boils down to, "is there life close enough that I’ll ever notice it?" And, that gets into the real probabilities of how likely is life in any one, particular planetary system? Or, how likely are there two cases of life in our own solar system? So, I think in the next twenty years we’ll find out if life is common, or if life is rare.

KATHLEEN What should young people thinking about their future consider?

MICHAEL – I think astrobiology has a tremendous opportunity to get the next generation excited about what we’re doing in terms of exploration and what we’re learning about life here on Earth. Not only because we’re asking some fundamental questions, but we’re doing some interesting science; and if we’re going to do campaigns to extreme environments, there’s a lot of adventure involved in it. The next generation can be brought along in the thrill of this exploration especially when we extend this exploration to other planets.


Related Web Pages

EXOBIOLOGY Defined
NASA Astrobiology Portal