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To search for life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe beyond, one must first define "life." That was the message of a day-long celebration of 50 years of NASA research in exobiology and astrobiology on Thursday.
Molecular biologist Steve Benner explained to the audience that one can develop a "laundry list" of criteria that must be met for something to be described as life, but any such list necessarily rests on the biases of the person creating it -- a carbon-based life form that needs water to survive. What about life forms that might be based on other elements, like silicon? Benner was a member of a National Research Council study committee that published a report entitled Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, dubbed the "Weird Life" report, which ruminated scientifically on other types of life forms that might exist.
Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe returned to work at EADS for the first time yesterday after being in an airplane crash in Alaska that took the lives of Senator Ted Stevens and four others. NASAWatch and Reuters both report the story.
Keith Cowing at NASAWatch adds a note from O'Keefe friend and former NASA General Counsel Paul Pastorek that Dateline NBC will have a one-hour segment devoted to the crash on Friday night at 9:00 pm, and O'Keefe will make appearances on NBC's Today show and CNBC that morning. O'Keefe's 19-year-old son, Kevin, also survived the crash and was interviewed for Dateline NBC along with his parents.
UPDATE: NASA's media teleconference on new results from LRO and LCROSS has been added for Thursday.
The following events may of interest in the coming week.. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.
Wednesday-Thursday, Oct. 20-21
Thursday, Oct. 21e
Thursday-Friday, Oct. 21-22
Friday, Oct. 22
NASA's Kepler Mission and the SETI Institute invite anyone 18 or over to submit an essay in honor of Carl Sagan's birthday reflecting on the vision he inspired in his 1980 book, Cosmos, of Earth as the shore of the cosmic ocean.
Essays must be submitted by October 26, 2010 and the winner will be announced on Sagan's birthday, November 9. Dr. Sagan passed away in 1996. See the announcement for further instructions.
The Space Foundation is making available a tracking tool for anyone who is following the mid-term elections and their impact on the space program. Available as either a PDF or Excel spreadsheet, the tool lists all the House and Senate members who are on the congressional committees that impact space program policy and funding or have constituent interests in space and whether they are running for reelection, retiring, or have been defeated in primaries. The list will be updated after the November 2 elections.
The European Union (EU) unveiled a revised draft of its "Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities" during a meeting at the United Nations last week. The Secure World Foundation and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) sponsored the event in conjunction with a meeting of the U.N.'s First Committee. The Council of the European Union had adopted it on October 11.
Meanwhile, the U.N. First Committee is proposing creation of a Group of Governmental Experts on Space Security to develop Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) for space, according to SWF's Ben Baseley-Walker in a press release summarizing the meeting.
Global Economic Woes Mean More International Space Cooperation, Should Include China, Say International Space Reps
Representatives of Japanese and European space agencies told a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) audience yesterday about the difficult economic conditions facing their space programs, like that here in the United States, and how international cooperation is key to moving forward -- and China should be part of it.
Norimitsu Kamimori, head of the Washington office of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) explained the constrained funding for his civil space agency, pointing out that some plans, like future robotic lunar exploration, have been put on hold. And while Japan would like to cooperate more with the United States on earth science missions, funding shortfalls make that difficult.
Andreas Diekmann, Juergen Drescher, and Emmanuel di Lipkowski, the Washington representatives of the European Space Agency (ESA), Germany's space agency, DLR, and France's space agency, CNES, respectively, sounded a similar theme about the outlook for funding for their space activities. They are hopeful that the European Union (EU) will provide more funding for space activities now that it has an official role in space policy thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, which went into force in December 2009. They believe that space programs will benefit from the higher-level political attention accorded to EU activities.
International cooperation will be essential to realizing future plans, they said, especially in human exploration. Mr. di Lipkowski said that "None of us question the need for American leadership in space." In response to a question about China's role in future international space activities, all four endorsed the idea. Mr. Kamimori pointed out that China is Japan's neighbor and they already have established a cooperative relationship, especially through the Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF), created in 1993 after the 1992 International Space Year. Mr. Diekmann added that ESA has had cooperative programs with China in space science and that China participates in the International Space Exploration Coordination (ISEC) working group of countries discussing future human space exploration. Mr. Drescher said that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's ongoing trip to China is an "important cornerstone to keep stability and understand where we are." Mr. di Lipkowski added that China, with its population and economy, cannot be ignored and "we have to bring them into the tent to see how we do things."
The four were members of a panel organized by CSIS's Ashley Bander to discuss "The Year Ahead in Space." All four praised the International Space Station (ISS), but emphasized that it is essential that the facility be put to good use now that so much has been spent on building it. Mr. Drescher and Mr. di Lipkowski warned that potential users may be lost because they do not want to deal with the layers of bureaucracy or lengthy time frames for getting an experiment on orbit. "We have to prove that this laboratory can deliver and not be a white elephant," Mr. di Lipkowski asserted. Mr. Drescher added that "we have to rewrite" the book of "how to access ISS and give it to the scientists." Mr. Diekmann, however, said he would not "paint such a dark picture" of ISS utilization given that assembly has just been completed and a full crew complement only recently became available to conduct science experiments. ESA, he said, has a strong utilization plan and user community for ISS.
As to whether ISS is a good model for future international space projects, Mr. di Lipkowski noted that the ISS cooperative framework was developed during the Cold War and a new model will be needed for the current era of international relationships. Offering an impassioned defense of human spaceflight activities, he stressed that "We are living in terrible economic times. We can't do what Apollo did. My message is that we have to cooperate." Ruing the fact that younger people today are not very interested in space activities even though it is one of the few sources of "positive" news, he emphasized that what is needed is new governance and export control models and a vision "or we will go nowhere." "We have to sell us, the space community, to the political community and not think that everything we do is marvelous and brilliant." He added that people need to understand that space is not expensive in the overall scheme of things, that in the United States, for example, NASA is only 0.6 percent of the federal budget. Mr. Diekmann said that space applications are the top priority in Europe exactly because the benefits are more visible to the public.
The panel also emphasized the need for balance between robotic and human spaceflight, and among exploration, space science, and "managing Earth" using earth science satellites.
Closer collaboration with the United States on new space transportation systems was another theme. "That doesn't mean we have to build a common launcher," Mr. Diekmann said, "but we need common interfaces for a more intelligent combination of capabilities," that is, a "common space transportation policy."
The cloud of debris from the 2007 Chinese antisatellite test now numbers 3,037 pieces according to the latest issue of NASA's Orbital Debris Quarterly News. China launched a kinetic kill attack against one of its own satellites in January 2007. The action was globally condemned less for its militaristic nature than for the massive amount of orbital debris it created, imperiling other satellites.
The NASA publication reports that 97 percent of the debris is still in orbit three and a half years after the event "posing distinct hazards to hundreds of operational satellites." The debris from that one event represents 22 percent of all catalogued space objects in low Earth orbit according to NASA. Debris can generate more debris by collisions within the cloud.
The record-breaking attempt by Felix Baumgartner to become the first human to break the speed of sound in free-fall has been halted by a lawsuit, Universe Today reported yesterday. According to the article, promoter Daniel Hogan has filed suit against the Red Bull Stratos Initiative team claiming he originally pitched the idea in 2004 and that, after a year of conversations where important details were discussed, Red Bull told him they were not interested. Hogan was then surprised when Red Bull announced the project last January without acknowledging his idea or seeking permission to use the confidential information he provided.
As quoted in the article, Red Bull issued the following statement:
When House Science and Technology Commitee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) agreed to bring the Senate version of the NASA authorization bill to the House floor for a vote instead of his own version of the bill, he said that he would continue to work with the appropriators to make changes in what the Senate decided. He and other members of the committee's bipartisan leadership have now written to the House and Senate appropriators outlining those changes.
As Rep. Gordon has said on several occasions, the key points that he and other committee members feel are critical for the appropriators to consider are the following:
Events of Interest