Called “Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in Our Solar System and Beyond,” the House Science Committee’s hearing featured three PhD-credentialed witnesses who are prominent in a scientific field that once was considered speculative. Although the efforts of the world’s scientists have yet to yield even one confirmed example of extraterrestrial life, astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets outside the solar system, and many believe that the galaxy is aswarm with potentially habitable worlds.
The experts at the hearing — NASA astrobiologist Mary Voytek, Massachusetts Institute of Technology planetary scientist Sara Seager and science historian Steven J. Dick — advocated funding for the field, including investment in space telescopes that would be designed to detect chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of distant, extrasolar planets.
Many of the questions from committee members were vague inquiries about whether astrobiology could be an inspiration for young people to get involved with science and engineering. The witnesses were asked how they got interested in astrobiology.
At one point, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla) asked the panelists what they considered to be the greatest danger to life on Earth. Dick said asteroids, Seager said overpopulation, and Voytek mentioned the quest for energy resources.
Then Posey asked whether they could recall the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
Seager answered delicately: “I always tell my students, every day is like a PhD defense. I actually don’t remember that number off the top of my head.”
Although the Democrats on the committee praised the witnesses and seemed to enjoy the discussion, the hearing, called by the committee chairman, Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), inspired partisan mockery outside the room. A news release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the Republicans were holding a hearing on “space aliens” rather than on such issues as immigration reform or a minimum-wage increase.
“No wonder the American people think this Republican Congress is from another planet — they’re more interested in life in space than Americans’ lives,” said the DCCC’s Emily Bittner. “Saying this Republican Congress has misplaced priorities is an understatement of galactic proportions.”
The hearing Wednesday largely skirted the issue of extraterrestrial intelligence. Dick, author of “The Biological Universe,” suggested that NASA should resume funding of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (typically with radio telescopes).
Not until the hearing was nearly over did a lawmaker address the issue head-on. Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.), the chairman emeritus of the committee, asked the panel: “Do you think there’s life out there, and are they studying us? And what do they think about New York City?”
Seager, whose work has earned her a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” would not speculate about intelligent life but said: “The chance that there’s a planet like Earth out there with life on it is very high.”
NASA’s Voytek was a bit more playful on the subject. “Whether they’re looking at New York or some small town in Indiana, the diversity of life here and the way that we live our lives is phenomenal, and I think it goes all the way down from humans to microbes,” she said.
Dick went with a Copernican principle of sorts: “I think the guiding principle holds that what’s happened here has happened elsewhere in our huge universe.”
Welcome to our live blog coverage of a congressional hearing into extraterrestrial life: is there anybody out there?
For years, Congress has failed to pass a budget and has run away from urgent national issues such as immigration reform. But sometimes the really big questions are easier to grapple with than the small stuff. We'll be listening today for a breakthrough.
Experts from Nasa, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Library of Congress will be testifying before the House committee on science, space and technology, which oversees the most prominent public science agencies including Nasa, the National Science Foundation and the National Weather Service.
The committee is chaired by Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, whose nomination last year drew controversy because he has dabbled in climate change skepticism. The selection of Smith as chair also drew praise, however, because among potential Republican nominees he was viewed as the least hostile to science – a big plus for Congress' head of science oversight.
The hearing is titled Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond. Nasa has published astrobiology "roadmaps" concerned with three key questions, according to a hearing charter:
• How does life begin in the universe?
• Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?
• What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?
We'll see how far we get into these deep issues from 10am ET.
The hearing has begun. Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, is calling for sustained funding for Nasa and other science agencies.
Nasa has faced crippling budget cuts in the past decade. In the five years from 2008-2012 inclusive, the Nasa budget has fallen in nominal dollars, real dollars and as a percentage of the federal budget. The White House budget for FY 2014 proposes $17.7 bn for Nasa, a decrease of 0.3 percent (~$50 million) below the 2012 enacted level.
Today's witnesses are:
Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Planetary Science Division, NASA
Dr. Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Physics and Planetary Science, MIT
Dr. Steven Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology, John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress
Dr. Voytek, the Nasa senior scientist, begins her testimony by mentioning Kepler data released in early November showing that there are over 3,500 potential "exoplanets" in our galaxy, including 647 that are located in the “habitable zone."
The "habitable zone" is 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, according to a hearing charter.
Dr. Seager, from MIT, is testifying. She describes a very exciting search enabled by new telescope technology. "This is the first time in human history we have the technological reach to cross the threshold," she says.
The James Webb space telescope has opened new frontiers in the search for "biosignature gases" that can indicate life, she says. On Earth, oxygen is the biosignature gas. On planets outside the solar system, scientists are conducting a "search for gases that, we call it, don't belong, that exist in huge quantities, that can be attributed to life," Seager says.
We will not know if any exoplanet biosignature gas is produced by intelligent life or if it is produced by single-cell bacteria. [...]
If life really is everywhere, we actually have a shot at it.
Dr. Dick, the astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, is testifying. He says the field presents "tantalizing and interdisciplinary questions" linking microbiologists, astronomers and chemists.
Rep. Lamar Smith asks his first question. He notes that "Space exploration attracts bipartisan interest and bipartisan support." Space: the ultimate purple state.
Smith asks what Nasa plans to stick in its next astrobiology "roadmap," scheduled to be published next year.
Voytek says the next roadmap will prioritize the study of conditions for life OFF Earth, and the study of synthetic biology.
She talks about the discovery of extraterrestrial life as a question of "when," not "if". "I anticipate that the first life we find is likely to be microbial," Voytek says.
Dr Seager says scientists need a new big space telescope. "We need to find out how to put a large mirror in space," she says.
Smith asks how Congress can "expedite the process." "I have a hunch the answer's going to be funding," he says.
Voytek calls it "continued support": "I know that funding is tough, but it's the best thing that you can do."
Seager says outreach to "inspire the next generation" is "the best investment we have."
Dr. Dick says yes, funding, and beyond that just the security of knowing that Congress is behind research programs for the long haul.
The James Webb telescope is scheduled for launch in 2018, according to Nasa:
The project is working to a 2018 launch date. Webb will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Webb will peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System. Webb's instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range.
Webb will have a large mirror, 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both the mirror and sunshade won't fit onto a rocket fully open, so both will fold up and open once Webb is in outer space. Webb will reside in an orbit about 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth.
The James Webb Space Telescope was named after the NASA Administrator who crafted the Apollo program, and who was a staunch supporter of space science.
If you're interested, you should watch this hearing live on House.gov.
Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, 90, the committee chairman emeritus, says the witness table may well constitute the most concentrated assemblage of brainpower he has witnessed. He's a charming folksy guy:
I just don't know how I'm going to tell my barber, or folks from my hometown, about your testimony here. But you must really enjoy waking up each morning and going to work.
Seager says the record of science education in the United States is a record of missed opportunities. "All children are born curious about the world, and somehow that ends up getting squashed out of them," she says.
Voytek agrees. Kids often like dinosaurs and space and the planets, she says. Cultivating those interests would strengthen science itself, she says.
Seager is literally breathless. She's talking about CubeSats, which are cute, cube-shaped satellites. She says such relatively inexpensive tools could produce a swelter of breakthroughs in space exploration. Seager is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant recipient. Her enthusiasm for negotiating ways to continue space exploration despite hostile appropriations committees is detectable without sophisticated instruments.
"[Astrobiology is] a legitimate science now," Dr. Seager says. "We're not looking for aliens or searching for UFOs." We're using standard astronomy, she says.
Dr. Dick says exploration itself is American.
Rep. Bill Posey, Republican of Florida, get real.
"You've pretty much indicated life on other planets is inevitable," he says. "It's just a matter of time and funding."
Then he asks the scientists to say what they think the biggest threat to life on Earth is.
"We've had the recent experience of the fireball over Russia," Dick says. "I would have to say that asteroid impacts are a danger."
"The Earth is in outer space," he says. Mull that one for a second.
Seager says "I think overpopulation of our planet is going to be our biggest problem."
Voytek says "Essential resources can be limiting." The failure to find alternative energy is the threat, she says.
A Congressman is talking about how he studied biology in college.
Intermission: A selection from Freeman Dyson's stellar memoir, Disturbing the Universe (p.206 in the 1979 Basic Books edition):
Many of the people who are interested in searching for extraterrestrial intelligence have come to believe in a doctrine which I call the Philosophical Discourse Dogma, maintaining as an article of faith that the universe is filled with societies engaged in long-range philosophical discourse. The Philosophical Discourse Dogma holds the following truths to be self-evident:
1. Life is abundant in the universe.
2. A significant fraction of the planets on which life exists give rise to intelligent species.
3. A significant fraction of intelligent species transmit messages for our enlightenment.
If these statements are accepted, then it makes sense to concentrate our efforts upon the search for radio messages and to ignore other ways of looking for evidence of intelligence in the universe. But to me the Philosophical Discourse Dogma is far from self-evident. There is as yet no evidence either for it or against it. Since it may be true, I am whole-heartedly in favor of searching for radio messages. Since it may be untrue, I am in favor of looking for other evidence of intelligence, and especially for evidence which does not require the cooperation of the beings whose activities we are trying to observe.
The search for biosignature gases seems to fit with that second bit.
Marc Veasey, Democrat of Texas, asks whether technology developed by Nasa could be used to detect deep-sea oil leaks.
Voytek says yes, astrobiology technology developed to detect hydrocarbons was used to locate and map the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Two studies have revealed that the Hubble space telescope has detected water in the atmospheres of five planets outside the solar system, it was announced yesterday. NBC News reports:
The five exoplanets with hints of water are all scorching-hot, Jupiter-size worlds that are unlikely to host life as we know it. But finding water in their atmospheres still marks a step forward in the search for distant planets that may be capable of supporting alien life, researchers said.
"We're very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets," Avi Mandell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., lead author of one of the studies, said in a statement. "This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets — for example, hotter versus cooler ones."
Read the full piece here.
There has been a string of questions about science education in the USA, which the scientists agree needs to be re-structured and redoubled.
The avuncular Hall is back up for some comic relief. He says he has a question "on behalf of Democrats and Republicans:
Do you think there's life out there? And are they studying us? And what do they think of New York City?
Seager says the Milky Way galaxy contains 100bn stars and the universe is thought to contain 100bn galaxies. "Do the math," she says.
Hall says there's no way he's going to do the math. He says there's three things he never understood about math: addition and subtraction. Get it!
Seager says "The chance is very high... the question is, is there life near here, in our neighborhood of stars? We think the chances are good."
All three witnesses say they believe that there is "life out there." Asked for brief answers, they say "yes," "yes," and "yes."
Rep. Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah, is taking this hearing to places no Congress has gone before.
"Let's assume that we find life? What do we do then?" he asks. "How does that change things with us in the way we view ourselves?"
"We do that with Twitter," Dick jokes. The audience laughs. Huh?
"No this is intelligent life," is Stewart's riposte. Ha.
11.49am ET Summary
The hearing has wrapped. No conclusive evidence as to the existence or not of extraterrestrial life emerged today on Capitol Hill. But as multiple committee members were at pains to mention, the hearing was more fun and informative than the usual fare. Here's a summary of where things stand:
• The likelihood of life existing on planets "in our neighborhood" is high, according to the collective wisdom of three of the country's top space scientists. It may be microbiotic life. It may be little green guys. Whatever the case it's probably out there.
• The completion of the James Webb space telescope project and other exploration ventures is essential to the search for life on other planets. New technology seeks to measure biosignature gases on planets outside the solar system, a large proportion of which could indicate life.
• The search for such life is thought to have societal benefits in the form of spinoff technology, stronger science education and inspirational mojo.
• Funding for Nasa and science exploration is crucial if researchers are to carry the search for extraterrestrial life forward. What can we do? Congress asked the witnesses. Write checks, the witnesses replied.
Is There Life On Other Planets And, If So, What the Hell DO They Think of New York City?
There’s so little being achieved in Congress these days, it’s natural that one looks for life on other planets.
One can thus thank the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology for a refreshingly insightful, non-political hearing on what really might be out there…..way out there.
The title of Wednesday’s hearing was “Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in Our Solar System and Beyond.”
Yes, a hearing run by House Republicans that had nothing to do with either Benghazi or the Healthcare.gov website. Miracles do happen.
Is there “some form of rudimentary life and what would be the implication of such a discovery?” wondered Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the committee. “Could affect the way we view our place in the universe?”
In fact, three bigtime scientists gave a superb overview on the state of astrobiology; the search for signs of life in our solar system and well beyond; and the importance of investing in science and improving science education in our schools.
The witnesses included Sara Seager, a brilliant astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award this year and who focuses on exoplanets, our planets beyond our solar system.
“We stand on a great threshold in the human history of space exploration,” she testified.
On the one side of this threshold, we know with certainty that planets orbiting stars other than the Sun exist and are common. These worlds beyond our Solar System are called exoplanets, and astronomers have found (statistically speaking) that every star in our Milky Way Galaxy has at least one planet.”
“If life is prevalent in our neighborhood of the Galaxy, it is within our resources and technological reach to be the first generation in human history to finally cross this threshold, and to learn if there is life of any kind beyond Earth.”
Her views were echoed by Steven Dick, an astrobiologist at the Library of Congress, who noted how various ground-based telescopes as well as the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, have contributed greatly to the discovery of planets beyond our solar system, or so-called “exoplanets.”
“But NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has opened the floodgates,” he said. “Twenty years ago no planets were known around Sun-like stars. At of the end of 2013 more than 1,000 planets have been confirmed, and thousands more are awaiting confirmation.”
Mary Voytek, an astrobiologist at NASA, said that, yes, Earth is the only example so far of an inhabited planet. But life has been found in so many challenging climates on Earth, it teaches us how tenacious life is and capable of adapting to local environmental conditions.
There was much talk of existing and future telescope technology, including what’s known as the starshade, or a flower-shaped disc that would block starlight that now interferes with our observing other worlds. It holds out great hope, is backed by NASA and originated in optics research by the French.
The witnesses all touched upon the search for exoplanet “biosignature gases.”
As Seager noted, those are gases “produced by life that can accumulate in a planetary atmosphere to levels detectable remotely by large telescopes.”
But she also emphasized that even the discovery of such gases will not tell us if they are “produced by intelligent life or by simple single-celled bacteria.”
Some of the committee members asked good and sharp questions. Others were banal. And then there was a bit of comic relief.
That came from Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican (and former Democrat) who is 90 and thus the oldest member of Congress.
He initially joked that he hadn’t ever seen such intelligence at one table as with these three witnesses. When he was a student at Southern Methodist University, “you were the very people I didn’t like.”
He also wondered how he’d explain their testimony to his barber back home. And, then, he asked this:
“Do you think there’s life out there and are they studying us---and what do they think of New York City?”
“Let’s say the chance for life is very high. The real question is if there is life anywhere near here, near our stars,” said Seager.
As far as what “they” might think, nobody suggested the obvious.
When I asked Jon Maas, a producer friend in Los Angeles, he said it was obvious:
How could they get a reservation at Rao’s, the oh-so-in Harlem restaurant? Are “Book of Mormon” premium tickets THAT expensive? Might Mike Bloomberg consider running their planet?
The closest to a specific response at the hearing came from Voytek, the senior scientist at NASA’s planetary science division.
Peering down on us, they might be impressed by “the phenomenal diversity of life, whether looking at New York or a small town in Indiana.”
And, she said, that diversity applies to both microbes and human beings.
In these polarized political days, it would presumably be another rare point of agreement.
Quelle: DAILY NEWS
Committee Holds Hearing on Astrobiology
(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled, Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond. The purpose of the hearing was to assess the multi- and interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology research, including the role astrobiology plays in space missions; examine the techniques and capabilities necessary to determine the potential for the existence of biosignatures within our Solar System; investigate what methods are being used to determine if any of the newly discovered potential Earth-like planets outside of our Solar System may harbor biosignatures; and to discuss the update to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Astrobiology Roadmap, due to be completed next year. Testifying before the Committee were Dr. Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA; Dr. Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at MIT; and Dr. Steven J. Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her opening statement, “There is no denying humankind’s interest in establishing whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. People have probably speculated on that possibility since time immemorial. The question of whether there is life beyond Earth got increased attention this year following the Kepler space telescope’s discovery of Earth-size exoplanets in habitable zones around other stars, and Curiosity’s finding of traces of water in Martian soil. Astrobiology, as we will hear during this hearing, is an interdisciplinary field that makes use of many fields of science to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds. As might have been guessed, NASA has played a major role in astrobiology’s development as a formal discipline.”
She continued, “I would be remiss were I not to make note that continuing to provide adequate funding to NASA’s science programs is of critical importance if we are to continue to make progress in astrobiology as well as other important scientific fields. I hope that Congress recognizes the vital contributions of ongoing and future NASA space science missions in answering whether there is life in the universe. This hearing is an opportunity to shine light on these contributions.”
Witnesses and Members discussed a number of issues surrounding astrobiology including, what future goals should be; challenges; technology needed; international collaboration; inspiration and engaging students in astrobiology and STEM; and societal benefits.
Dr. Voytek, said, “Astrobiology is about more than just scientific discovery. Astrobiology research and technology development has an impact on our daily lives and benefits society as a whole. We are all familiar with the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 – the largest offshore spill in U.S. history. In April of that year, the United States was faced with the challenge of determining the extent of the spill, both in regard to how much oil was leaking and where the oil was moving. Astrobiology had a role in analyzing the spill. Using detectors and autonomous operation technology funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, along with a National Science Foundation robotic submersible vehicle, scientists were able to map the underwater plume. Technology initially developed to search autonomously for environments capable of supporting life allowed the submersible to navigate along a guided path to search for the plume.”
Dr. Seager stressed the inspirational value and potential impact of astrobiology, “In July 2010 I became a citizen of the United States of America, motivated by our nation’s uniqueness in its combination of technological forte, allocated resources for space missions, and ambitious spirit. It is within the power of our influence to cross the great historical threshold and be the first generation in human history to map the nearby exoplanetary systems and find signs of life on other Earth-like worlds. As a country, this achievement may prove to be our greatest legacy.”
In describing one of the discoveries in astrobiology over the last decade, Dr. Dick singled out research on life in extreme environments. He said, “Life has been found in hydrothermal vents at high temperatures and pressures deep below the ocean; it has been found three kilometers below the ground employing radioactivity rather than photosynthesis for its metabolic processes; it has been found way above the boiling point of water in the brilliant hot spring of Yellowstone and way below its freezing point in the deserts of Antarctica, under conditions of extreme radiation, salinity, acidity and so on. The point is that life is much more tenacious than once thought, and so may arise on planets under conditions once thought unfavorable.”
Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
394 Ford House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515