Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond
By U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
The purpose of this hearing is to examine astrobiology research and the search for biosignatures in our Solar System and beyond. The hearing will include a general assessment of the multi- and interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research, including the role astrobiology plays in formulating NASA space missions. It will also examine the techniques and capabilities necessary to determine the potential for the existence of biosignatures within our Solar System. With the discovery of potential Earth-like planets outside of our Solar System, the hearing will also investigate what methods are being used to determine if any of these planets may harbor life. The hearing will explore existing and planned astrobiology research strategies and roadmaps.
• Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters
• Dr. Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and of Planetary Science at M.I.T. and 2013 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for her work in exoplanet research
• Dr. Steven J. Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology, John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress
The United States pioneered the field of astrobiology, and currently leads the world in astrobiology research. Astrobiology is multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary and attracts physicists, organic chemists, biologists, geologists and astronomers, among others from around the world to the United States to conduct their research. While conducting research, individual scientists must verse themselves in a variety of scientific disciplines, while also collaborating with colleagues across scientific fields. Astrobiologists study microbial life in underwater lakes beneath Antarctica, living organisms that can thrive in extreme temperatures at the edge of volcanic fissures on the bottom of the ocean and bacteria that live in deserts in order to better understand the varied conditions in which life might exist in the diverse environments on planetary bodies in our Solar System and beyond.
In their 2008 Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the National Academies of Science collected several definitions of astrobiology from scientists. They found that it “is variously defined as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe; the study of life as a planetary phenomenon; the study of the living universe; or the origin and coevolution of life and habitable environments.”1
Our Solar System
Astrobiology has been a part of space missions almost from the beginning of the space program. Current and future proposed space science missions within our Solar System incorporate astrobiology research, including the Mars rovers and orbiters, Cassini’s fly-by examination of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and proposed robotic missions to the Jupiter moons of Europa and Titan, in addition to many other missions.
Beyond Our Solar System
Astrobiologists and astrophysicists work together to discover and categorize exoplanets beyond our Solar System. The first definitive exoplanet discovery occurred in 1992.2 On September 29, 2010, the Keck Observatory announced that it had identified the first Earth-sized planet orbiting a star in a “habitable zone,” an area where a planet’s distance from its sun increases the possibility it could have surface temperatures that could support the existence of liquid water.3 On April 18, 2013, NASA’s Kepler mission released details of its discovery of two new planetary systems that include three super-Earth sized planets in the “habitable zone.”4 On November 4, NASA announced that a review of Kepler’s data from the past three years showed that there are over 3,500 potential exoplanets in our galaxy, 647 of them located in the “habitable zone.”5 The data also led scientists to estimate that there could be 140 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy. One of these planets is 12 light years away.6
1National Research Council of the National Academies.
Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. 2008.
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