Getting NASA's astrobiology community to agree on a set of specific future space life exploration goals must be like herding cats - there are over 500 members, but the group is currently trying to do just that by defining the most important questions it want to focus on for the 2014 Strategic Plan.
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The NASA group, which defines astrobiology as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, has in the past been successful in exploring a host of significant areas including:
- How did life on Earth emerge and how did early life evolve with its changing environment?
- What are the environmental limits of life as we know it?
- By what evolutionary mechanisms does life explore the adaptive landscape shaped by those limits?
- What principles will shape life in the future?
- Do habitable environments exist elsewhere in the Universe?
- By what signatures may we recognize life on other worlds as well as on early Earth?
NASA says the success of the group's work over the past five years "can be measured in terms of peer-reviewed publications (more than 5,000), graduate and post-graduate students trained (hundreds), increased public awareness and interest as well as in how NASA funds have been leveraged to create new intellectual property (approximately half a dozen invention disclosures) and at least one start-up company."
The group began constructing its 2014 Strategic Plan - set to be released next April - in May and has whittled down hundreds of topics to 21, which includes topics such as:
- What are the common attributes of extant living systems, and what can they tell us about all living systems?
- How did bio-relevant elements evolve into molecules?
- How can we best overcome our ignorance about microbial life on Earth?
- How would we find and identify an inhabited planet?
- How can we enhance the utility of biosignatures as a tool to search for life in the Solar System & beyond?
From NASA: The next steps in the creation of the new Strategic Plan will move the process back on-line. Starting in September, the 21 working documents will be published on the astrobiologyfuture.org website and the astrobiology community will be invited to review them. One webinar will be held for each document, after which community members will be allowed to provide comments. Community members will also be able to add documents if a compelling case can be articulated for the existence of a gap in the existing documents.
A face-to-face integration workshop will be held in late February to create a first draft of the Strategic Plan. This draft will be reviewed by the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council and, possibly, an ad hoc committee of the National Research Council. Following the consideration of comments arising from these reviews, a final draft will be published in April 2014.
Are there other questions NASA should be asking?
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