The Next Step for Astrobiology’s Roadmap
The Astrobiology Program has completed the first step in creating a new Astrobiology Roadmap. The next phase in outlining the future direction for astrobiology research and technology development at NASA is set to begin today.
Roughly every ten years, the Astrobiology Program updates NASA’s official Astrobiology Roadmap. This document provides guidance for research funded by the program in areas that encompass space, Earth and biological sciences.
In writing the 2013 Astrobiology Roadmap, NASA’s Astrobiology Program decided to take a new approach by asking the global astrobiology community to take part in the process. A dedicated website and online community was developed, and a call went out to the public to join in online webinars and discussions concerning the primary questions that astrobiology research should focus on in the years to come.
“Whilst there are still important benefits to face to face interaction, I think this activity has shown that it is perfectly possible to have productive, virtual meetings that engage a diverse community, using technology that is available almost everywhere,” says Andy Burnett of Knowinnovation, the consultancy tasked with developing the online community space.
Over five hundred astrobiologists from around the world joined in the discussions that took place during the month of May. Webinars were held covering five general areas encompassed by astrobiology:
- Astrobiology for Solar Systems Exploration. In this webinar, participants discussed questions relevant to solar systems exploration that have been answered in the last decade, and the most compelling open questions for the next decade.
- Prebiotic Evolution – understanding pathways and processes leading from the origin of planetary bodies to the origin of life. Discussions included topics such as the questions surrounding planetary and molecular processes that set the conditions for living systems to arise on Earth.
- Evolution of Advanced Life – determining the biological and environmental factors leading to the development of multicellularity on Earth and the potential distribution of complex life in the Universe. This webinar included topics such as the origin and early evolution of biological factors that are essential to multicellular life, and the influence of extraterrestrial factors and planetary processes that affect the evolution of multicellular life on Earth.
- Early Evolution of Life and the Biosphere – determining the nature of the most primitive organisms and the environment in which they evolved. Participants discussed two natural repositories of evolutionary history available on Earth: the molecular record in living organisms and the geological record.
- Planetary Conditions for Life – delineate the galactic and planetary conditions conducive to the origin of life. Topics of discussion included research in areas like the formation and stability of habitable planets, and the formation of complex organic molecules in space and their delivery to planetary surfaces.
Following the webinars, single-question online events were held at https://www.astrobiologyfuture.org/ . These events allowed the entire community to discuss specific questions that were raised during the webinars:
- “Over the next 10 years, what research done on bodies within our Solar System (measurements and theory) will be most important for informing our search for life beyond the Earth?”
- “How can we measure the evolvabilities of different chemical systems, their likelihoods of arising from non-evolvable chemistry, and their capacities to evolve greater genetic and metabolic complexity?”
- “What is the timing and relative importance of each of the processes responsible for the delivery of volatiles to the terrestrial planets, and what conditions are required for those volatiles to make both organics and liquid water?”
- “What are the relative roles of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that promote or impede the evolution of life from simple cells to more complex kinds of cells, organisms, and communities?”
- “Generally and specifically, what key areas of research have been under-explored in past studies of early Earth environments and life — in other words, where do the most exciting future research opportunities lie and why?”
“The Webinars coupled with the website, gave us a great way to engage with the broadest possible community,” says Andy Burnett. “I think the map shows the breadth of engagement that we achieved.”
“It is important that our new roadmap has input from as wide a slice of the community as possible, and I certainly think the online format encouraged input from a wide audience,” comments Christopher House, Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University and one of the panelist for the Solar Systems Exploration webinar. “Because this was the first time that an online forum has been used for the Astrobiology roadmap process, I think the community started off quiet and reserved. In the end, they did open up a fair bit, giving useful insights.”
Together, the webinars and online activities helped generate a lot of discussion concerning the new Astrobiology Roadmap.
“I am delighted that the community generally embraced the process. Even though some were timid initially, we had some very active folks contributing to animated discussions,” commented Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
“The webinar series was a very successful experiment,” added Dr. Michael New, Discipline Scientist and Program Officer for NASA’s Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program. “Five hundred and seventy four individuals registered on the website from all over the world. They generated over 600 posts in 80 discussions.”
The results of the webinars and discussions will now guide further development of the 2013 Roadmap. Today (Monday, June 17, 2013), experts will gather at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA, to begin a workshop where the outcomes of the online webinars and discussions will be discussed.
“The next step is a face-to-face meeting of about 50 people, many chosen from the discussions on the web site,” says Michael New. “They will try to outline the key scientific challenges facing astrobiology over the next decade. The workshop will have a virtual component so interested individuals may participate.”
Wallops Island was selected because in September it will serve as the launch site for a new mission relevant to astrobiology research – NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. LADEE will study the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface, and environmental influences on lunar dust. The data gathered by the spacecraft will provide new details about the physical properties and evolution of planetary bodies in our solar system.
For anyone who is still interested in participating in the development of the 2013 Astrobiology Roadmap, videos and materials from all previous webinars and discussions are available online at: https://www.astrobiologyfuture.org/
“We will be streaming parts of the workshop online, as well as making it available for viewing later (allowing for people in different time zones),” says Andy Burnett. “We will also be using the website as a channel through which the community can add their thoughts and ideas.”
The workshop will begin at 15:00 Eastern Time (12:00 Pacific), and will run through Thursday, June 20, 2013.
Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Prebiotic Evolution May 13th
Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Advanced Life May 13th
Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Planetary Conditions For Life May 20th
Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Early Evolution of Life May 20th