A Roadmap for the Future of Astrobiology

The NASA Astrobiology Program has launched a dedicated website (www.astrobiologyfuture.org) to host webinars and online discussions that will guide the development of the 2013 Astrobiology Roadmap. Each week is dedicated to a specific set of science topics. Videos and transcripts from previous weeks are now available online. Credit: NASA

The NASA Astrobiology Program has started the process of outlining future research directions at the organization. Roughly every ten years, the program updates NASA’s official Astrobiology Roadmap – a document that guides research and technology development across NASA and encompass the space, Earth, and biological sciences. This time around, the program is opening the process up to the wider astrobiology community and calling for the public to participate in decisions that will guide research funding and missions for the coming decades.

In May of this year, the Astrobiology Program launched the Astrobiology Future site (www.astrobiologyfuture.org/). The site hosts on-line hangouts and discussions, with each week dedicated to different scientific topics. This week kicks off with talks concerning the Early Evolution of Life and the Biosphere and Planetary Conditions for Life. The webinars begin today (Monday, May 20) at 1pm Eastern Standard Time. Video and transcripts from previous weeks are also available on the site, and there is still time be involved.

Road mapping history

The first NASA Astrobiology Roadmap resulted from a meeting of 150 scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center on July 20-22, 1998. The discussion focused on a set of fundamental questions that were developed at a workshop on astrobiology held in 1996. The group of scientists drafted a document that was designed to guide astrobiology research for the next 20 years (with a particular emphasis on the first 5 years). Since then, the roadmap has been updated with contributions from scientists and technologists selected from government, universities and private institutions.

The 1996 Astrobiology Roadmap outlined ten goals for research at NASA, and in 2008 this list was refined to seven:

  • Understanding the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the universe
  • Exploring for habitable environments and life in our own Solar System
  • Understanding the emergence of life
  • Determining how early life on Earth interacted and evolved with its changing environment
  • Understanding the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life
  • Determining the principles that will shape life in the future
  • Recognizing signatures of life on other worlds and on early Earth.

Each of these goals are expanded by objectives in the roadmap that directly inform how research funding is distributed by NASA. Previous versions of the roadmap are available from the Astrobiology Program website at: astrobiology.nasa.gov/roadmap

Plotting a course for the future of astrobiology

The Astrobiology Roadmap is a critical document for the Astrobiology Program at NASA, and serves as a guide for how research proposals are selected and how astrobiology goals are integrated with and inform space missions.

There have been enormous advancements in the search for habitable planets around distant stars in recent years. Hundreds of extrasolar planets have now been confirmed, and determining life’s potential on these distant worlds is a major objective of the Astrobiology Program. Image Credit: PHL@UHR Aricebo

“Approximately every ten years, the NASA Astrobiology Program engages the scientific community in the preparation of the Astrobiology Roadmap,” says Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “This document elaborates a vision for the future directions of astrobiology research and serves as a foundational document for all discussions of astrobiology in the US and abroad.”

Previous Astrobiology Roadmaps at NASA were developed with a ‘top-down’ approach, meaning that discussions and decision making starting with high-level personnel within the program and more senior members of the community were invited later in the process to refine the goals and objectives that made it into the final print. For the 2013 Roadmap, the Astrobiology Program decided a different method was needed.

“In the past (2003, 2008) we’ve done this in the tried and true way of getting together a bunch of senior scientists and having them gather their own tribes and then write up their great thoughts,” says Dr. Michael New, Discipline Scientist and Program Officer for NASA’s Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program. “This time we’re trying to do something different.”

"Previous road map activities were by invitation to a relatively small group of typically senior scientists. In the very beginning the field of Astrobiology was relatively small and it made sense to get together the top people in fields that constituted what Astrobiology might look like," commented George Cody of the Carnegie Institute’s Geophysical Laboratory, and one of the scientists participating in the community. "Many years later it is clear that Astrobiology is extremely broad and in many ways driven by younger scientists."

The Astrobiology program employed the expertise of a consultancy called Knowinnovation and developed and online community space. This site is being used to host discussions that will shape the new roadmap. Innovative online technologies are being used to ensure access for astrobiologists who are willing to take part.

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover includes a sweeping panoramic view of its location in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater. Curiosity is NASa’s most recent addition to the suite of robotic explorers at Mars. The NASA Astrobiology Roadmap will help define scientific objectives for astrobiology research on future missions to the red planet. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS – Panorama by Andrew Bodrov

“Knowinnovation specialize in deliberate creativity,” explains Voytek, “setting up environments which maximize the creativity of a group. They’ve done a lot of work with the National Science Foundation and they are the facilitators of the IdeasLabs. Working with them we’ve setting up a virtual community (located at www.astrobiologyfuture.org, and hope we are engaging a wide cross-section of the astrobiology community.”

Andy Burnett leads work on Virtual Innovation Labs for Knowinnovation. “Knowinnovation is a facilitation company that specializes in scientific meetings,” says Burnett. “We work across all the sciences, but we are particularly involved with the biology and earth sciences communities.” The added experience of Knowinnovation is helping to bring in ideas from a large group of people who might not otherwise be able to physically attend a workshop.

“We want to engage as diverse a community as possible to ensure that a wide range of ideas are discussed in the road mapping workshop,” says Burnett. “For this event we are using a new software platform called HubZero. This is an open source project being run through Purdue University. It is designed specifically to support scientific collaboration, and we hope it will give us a long-term platform to support community discussions.”

The process for putting together the 2013 Roadmap began with weekly ‘webinars’ dedicated to broad topics of interest in astrobiology. The topical webinars are then followed by online discussions hosted in forums on the road mapping community website (www.astrobiologyfuture.org). Key points from these discussions will then be used to inform an official road mapping workshop held later this summer by the Astrobiology Program. “The National Research Council will convene a one-time, three-and-one-half day, in person meeting of invited experts and government officials to provide the latter with a synthesis of the compelling questions in astrobiology raised by the on-line discussions,” says Voytek. “The meeting will occur in mid-June 2013. The experts are expected to be acting in their personal capacities as scientists and no NRC-endorsed product will be produced from this meeting.”

Join the Conversation

The original invitation for the 1996 astrobiology workshop that culminated in publishing the 1998 Astrobiology Roadmap described the activity as: “… a critical planning activity to delineate NASA’s role in the new field of Astrobiology, spanning elements of space, life and earth science.” (David Morrison and meeting cochair, Michael Meyer)

An artistic view of the system seen from Kepler-62f. The host star is slightly redder than our sun. Astrobiology not only concerns studying the origin and evolution of life on Earth, but also the potential for life on planets that orbit distant stars. Image Credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute

In 2013, the importance of NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap is possibly greater than ever before. The Astrobiology Program remains a driving force in astrobiology, and provides funding, guidance and access to space missions for researchers across the wide breadth of fields relevant to the search for life’s potential in the Universe. By opening up the road mapping process to the wider research community, the Astrobiology Program hopes to prepare a document that is more robust and representative of the wide range of disciplines encompassed by astrobiology science.

“In such a wide-ranging field, it is impossible for a handful of scientists to be fluent in all of the relevant subject areas, and to be able to think creatively about what needs to be done next to advance the entire field,” says participant researcher Alan Boss of the Carnegie Insitute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. “This experiment has the potential to draw from the knowledge and experiences of the widest possible base of scientists around the world, literally anyone with access to the Internet.”

Now the task of shaping astrobiology’s future at NASA is up to the astrobiology community as a whole.

"Astrobiology is new field, created as a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. What is a risk under any stage, particularly the road map stage, is that one group with a specific interests over-represents and skews things one way or the other," says Cody. "It is essential to get the widest group of voices together to enhance the probability of a "best as can be" road map for Astrobiology into the future- with full representation from all interests."

“The experiment will only be a true success if all flavors of active astrobiologists take a little time out of their busy days to contemplate the ideas and questions raised to date on the web site, offer their own opinions and suggestions, and pose new ideas and questions of their own,” says Boss. “In the end, the field of Astrobiology will only continue to flourish and grow if we all work together to advance our science.”

"Opening up the "road map" process to a more "social media" format ensures that all voices can be considered," says Cody. "This is our future we are mapping out. All should have a voice in the discussion. Chose to stay silent, then do not complain."

Don’t miss your opportunity to share your ideas with the community and play your part in guiding the future of astrobiology research at NASA. Visit www.astrobiologyfuture.org/ to participate in the discussion.


Transcripts and videos from the webinars that have already taken place are posted on www.astrobiologyfuture.org. View the archived videos of previous webinars that have taken place this month:

Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Advanced Life May 13th

Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Prebiotic Evolution May 13th

Astrobiology Roadmap 2013 – Solar Systems Exploration (May 6th)