NASA Arms Scientists With $24M In Grants To Study Life In Universe While Congress Urges Alien Search Funding

Thursday, 10 May 2018 - 10:14AM
Science News
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Thursday, 10 May 2018 - 10:14AM
NASA Arms Scientists With $24M In Grants To Study Life In Universe While Congress Urges Alien Search Funding
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NASA is awarding five-year grants, each worth approximately $8 million, to three teams studying the "origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe," according to a recently-issued press release. The announcement, made yesterday, comes in the wake of similarly-worded proposed legislation made by lawmakers in the House of Representatives that would authorize "at least $10,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2018 and 2019 for the search for technosignatures ... such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life's origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe." 

NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green cited a need for partnerships in the agency's ongoing endeavors in space exploration, saying

Opening quote
"With NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite on its way to discover new worlds around our nearest stellar neighbors, Cassini's discovery of the ingredients necessary for life in Enceladus's plumes, and with Europa Clipper and Mars 2020 on the horizon, these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise needed to help interpret data from these missions and future astrobiology-focused missions."
Closing quote


The House bill specifically directs NASA to "partner with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to the maximum extent practicable to search for technosignatures."

The selected teams were named as:

Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA) at Rutgers University, led by Professor Paul Falkowski, The Astrobiology Center for Isotopologue Research (ACIR) at Penn State University, led by Professor Kate Freeman, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), led by Dr. Rosaly Lopez and based in Pasadena, California. 

Mary Voytek, the Director of the Astrobiology Program at NASA Headquarters, provided an overview of how the newly-added teams would provide value to NASA.

Opening quote
"The intellectual scope of astrobiology is vast, from understanding how our planet became habitable and inhabited, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth's harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life. The new teams will complement our existing teams to cover breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI, they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances."
Closing quote


An article published by The Atlantic yesterday chronicled the history of NASA's short-lived Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project and how the proposed legislation may reflect a renewal of interest in searching for alien life on the part of lawmakers, particularly Texas Republican congressman Lamar Smith who has chaired the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee since 2013. Smith is something of a controversial figure: according to a May 2014 Atlantic article, the committee held 15 hearings on space exploration during that congressional session, with at least three of them focused on the search for alien life. In contrast, The Atlantic notes, the committee held only two hearings on climate change the same year. Although Smith would not confirm whether or not the technosignatures provision originated with him, his office provided The Atlantic with a statement, saying "It's clear that the scientific community and the public is very interested in this research."

In January, astrophysicist Jill Tarter, who served as director of the Center for SETI Research for 35 years and headed the NASA SETI project until its dissolution, suggested that SETI could benefit from a rebranding. "SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence," Tarter said at a meeting held at UC Irvine. "We can't define intelligence, and we sure as hell don't know how to detect it remotely. [SETI] … is searching for evidence of someone else's technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence." Tarter continued, suggesting that the "problematic" acronym be dropped altogether and that future conversations would "continue to talk about a search for technosignatures."

It would seem these conversations – and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and technology – are continuing as Tarter suggested.

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