Latest News

The Search for Life Elsewhere Begins with Defining Life

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 19-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

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.

Such questions are not only for Star Trek fans, but for researchers who are actively engaged in searching for life on other planets and their moons in our solar system and beyond. In this case "life" is just that, life, not necessarily intelligent life, which is the focus of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a more controversial undertaking. As recounted by former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin in a rare talk about the space program since he left NASA in 2001, NASA has not directly supported SETI since 1993 when the Senate led the effort to cancel NASA's involvement in the program. Since then, SETI has relied on private sponsorship.

NASA, however, is fully engaged in the search for life in earlier stages. Since the life forms we know do require water for survival, "follow the water" became the theme for NASA's planetary exploration program while Goldin was Administrator. Although Benner and others want a more expansive view of what life might be, the reality is that one can only search for what one knows.

James Lovelock of Oxford University, founder of the Gaia hypothesis, reminisced about joining NASA in the early 1960s and being given the task of designing a method to determine if there is life on Mars in four days, which he did -- by studying the atmosphere. A decade later he published a book outlining a hypothesis he called Gaia, after the Greek goddess of Earth, that argues that life on Earth is part of a self-regulating system - essentially the planet and all the life on it function as a single organism. The somewhat controversial idea is that life on Earth developed and continues to exist not just because of luck, but because the physical, chemical and biological systems of Earth work together to regulate the planet to maintain that life. Some scientists refer to a "Goldilocks" zone around a star where temperatures are not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life to develop. Lovelock calls that "ridiculous," insisting that Earth is not within what scientists would consider the Goldilocks zone for our Sun, yet it is teeming with life because of the interaction of the atmosphere and everything else on the planet.

Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts, one of the primary proponents of the Gaia hypothesis -- or theory, depending on one's viewpoint -- blamed neo-Darwinists for attacking it and explained that it takes time for people to accept a new way of thinking. Quoting Emily Dickinson, she told the audience that "The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind."

The seminar was information- and intellectually-rich. Topics included historical accounts of NASA's Viking program, the first designed specifically to find life on Mars, and of the ups and downs of astrobiology at NASA, which dipped when people misinterpreted Viking's findings as proof that there was no life anywhere on Mars, but resurged after the 1996 "Martian meteorite" discovery.

Cultural perspectives on the implications of finding life elsewhere -- or not finding it, which would be equally significant -- were discussed in a panel that included journalist Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post. He is writing a book on astrobiology and said that in his travels around the world doing research for it he found that people everywhere were fascinated by the search for life. A story he wrote for the Post on the discovery of a planet in the habitable zone of another star was the most read and emailed story on the Post's website for several days and shared on Facebook more than 7,500 times. Other members of that panel emphasized the need to consider religion and science together when communicating with the public since astrobiology is based on the theory of evolution. Connie Bertka of the Carnegie Institution pointed out that 42% of the U.S. population does not accept evolution and that number has been unchanged for 50 years.

But the question that kept returning throughout the day is "What is life?" Nobelist Baruch Bloomberg, who was the first director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, argued that it is not that we are searching for life, we are testing the hypothesis that there is life elsewhere and searching for the data to prove the hypothesis. "How do you know if something's alive," he mused. "We have characteristics and if enough of them are satisfied then people say 'that's life.' It is hard to know how much data you need, but when it happens, you know it."

Sean O'Keefe Returns to Work; Dateline NBC to Broadcast Segment on Plane Crash Friday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

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.

Reuters quotes O'Keefe as saying he is at 75% strength and still has "several hurdles to overcome," but "getting back to work will surely help speed that process along."

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of October 18-22, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

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

Sagan Essay Contest: Share Your Thoughts on Earth as the Shore of the Cosmic Ocean

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

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.

NASA's Kepler mission is searching for other habitable planets outside our solar system. The SETI Institute is a privately funded effort to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Helpful Space Foundation Election Tracking Tool Available

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

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.

EU Releases Revised Draft Space Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2010 (Updated: 16-May-2012 09:10 AM)

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.

As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose explained, President Obama's new National Space Policy calls for developing TCBMs in order to promote "responsible and peaceful behavior in space." As examples, he listed "dialogues on national security space policies and strategies, expert visits to military satellite flight control centers, and discussions on mechanisms for information exchanges on natural and debris hazards. Joint resolutions on space security, and the adoption of international norms or 'codes of conduct' are also examples of TCBMs." Regarding the EU draft code of conduct specifically, Mr. Rose noted that the United States had been working with the EU over the past 18 months and hoped to decide "in the coming months" whether to sign on to it.

Jean-Francois Mayence provided a snapshot of the revised draft, whose purpose is "security, safety, sustainability" for all space activities based on four guiding principles: freedom of outer space as expressed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the principle of self-defense as expressed in the U.N. Charter, non-harmful actions, and the peaceful use of outer space.

Global Economic Woes Mean More International Space Cooperation, Should Include China, Say International Space Reps

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

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."

Debris from Chinese ASAT Test Now More Than 3,000 pieces

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

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.

This debris cloud, and another created by the 2009 unintentional collision of an operational U.S. commercial Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian Cosmos satellite, spurred the new push for improved Space Situational Awareness (SSA). SSA is a major feature of President Obama's new National Space Policy. Generally, SSA is intended to make information available to satellite operators on the location of other satellites and debris so collisions can be avoided.

Multi-million Dollar Lawsuit Stops Commercial "Spaceflight" Jump

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 13-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

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:

"Despite the fact that many other people over the past 50 years have tried to break Colonel (Ret.) Joe Kittinger's record, and that other individuals have sought to work with Red Bull in an attempt to break his record, Mr. Hogan claims to own certain rights to the project and filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit earlier this year in a Californian court. Red Bull has acted appropriately in its prior dealings with Mr. Hogan, and will demonstrate this as the case progresses . Due to the lawsuit, we have decided to stop the project until this case has been resolved."

Hogan had allegedly already assembled a team to carry out the stunt, which would have been made from 130,000 feet. Under the Red Bull Stratos Initiative, Baumgartner is to make the jump from a balloon at a slightly lower altitude - 120,000 feet - somewhere in New Mexico as announced last May.

House Authorizers Write to House and Senate Appropriators

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

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:

  • the additional shuttle flight recommended in the Senate bill represents an unfunded mandate of $500 million and it should only take place if the Administrator certifies that it is safe and necessary;
  • NASA, not Congress, should determine the best approach to making use of existing investments in Orion, Ares and Shuttle for a new space transportation system;
  • safety is a fundamental concern and recommendations made in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia accident should be kept in mind;
  • priority should be given to commercial cargo and not to commercial crew, and "would-be commercial providers" should have to put some "skin in the game" if they receive taxpayer funding;
  • the government needs to build a backup system to commercial crew and language needs to be clarified that a "fully capable launch system" be ready by the end of 2016;
  • new initiatives in STEM education are needed and the authorizers are concerned that the Senate bill would force NASA to cut funding for the Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP); and
  • provisions on acquisition management, couterfeit parts and information security at NASA need to be strengthened.
The Senate Appropriations Committee reported out its version of the appropriations bill that includes NASA (the Commerce-Justice-Science bill, S. 3636), but none of the 12 regular FY2011 appropriations bills has reached the Senate floor. The House Appropriations Committee's CJS subcommittee marked up its version of the bill in June, but the committee has not taken any further action on it.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: