What is "Life" Asks Rep. Bucshon

What is "Life" Asks Rep. Bucshon

In a relatively short, but wide-ranging hearing this morning, two House subcommittees learned not only about the ongoing search for other planets around other stars — exoplanets —  but about current thinking on how “life” is defined.

NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) both fund research into exoplanets.  NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is spurring headlines today with its findings about hundreds of such planets, but it was an NSF-funded effort in the 1990s that is credited with finding the first certifiable exoplanet.   NASA’s John Grunsfeld and NSF’s Jim Ulvestad assured members of the Space Subcommittee and Research Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that the two agencies work closely with each other, with the Department of Energy, which also funds astrophysics research, as well as with international partners in exoplanet studies.

The search for “other Earths” is part of the search for other life, perhaps intelligent life.  Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute, which focuses on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), explained the factors in the Drake Equation, of which the number of planets capable of supporting life is third (after the number of stars that might have planets in their habitable zone, and the fraction of those stars that actually have planets).

A key question, however, was asked by Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), chairman of the Research Subcommittee.  Noting that NASA’s Mars Curiosity mission is looking for water and carbon-based life, he said “that’s our definition of life…are there other people who have other definitions of life that we also might be exploring for?”

Doyle’s answer was that some astrobiologists “are looking at the definition of life as anything that can store information.”  He added that “silicon-based information storage and crystals and so on has not been out of the realm of consideration.”

The National Research Council (NRC) published a study in 2007, often referred to as the “weird life” study, that hypothesizes on life forms that might be based on elements other than carbon.  Bucshon was satisfied with Doyle’s necessarily brief explanation today, however.

The only mildly controversial issues that arose were the potential use of the Space Launch System (SLS) for launching future space telescopes that could be used for exoplanet research, and whether the Obama Administration’s proposed reorganization of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs might negatively impact dissemination of exoplanet findings from NASA missions.

Space subcommittee chairman Steven Palazzo’s (R-MS) first question clearly was intended to get Grunsfeld to say that SLS would be very useful for launching much larger space telescopes that might be able to detect oxygen, for example, in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, which could signal the existence of life there. Grunsfeld complied.   Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a strong supporter of commercial space activities, was the last questioner of the hearing and had the opposite intent.  He wanted Grunsfeld to acknowledge that SLS was not necessary for future telescopes that are being planned and existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) could be used instead.  Grunsfeld agreed.   Rohrabacher semi-seriously asked if Grunsfeld would be willing to pay for the development of SLS out of his budget and Grunsfeld, obviously, said no.  (Rohrabacher also joked that “we’ve been engaged in a search for intelligent life for a long time — over in the Senate, however.”)

As for the proposed changes to STEM programs, where NASA’s Science Mission Directorate funding for Education and Public Outreach (EPO) efforts associated with its various projects would be transferred to other agencies, Grunsfeld said only that the details of that plan are still being developed.

Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), currently scheduled for launch in 2018, for exoplanet research was discussed several times.  In response to a question about whether the lifespan of JWST could be extended beyond its 5-year design life, Grunsfeld said it cannot be repaired or upgraded like the Hubble Space Telescope since it will be located a million miles from Earth, but that the determining factor in the telescope’s lifetime is fuel.  “We hope, and actually engineering says, we should get 11 years of life … in an actual operational mode we will use.”

Prepared statements and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee’s Republican and Democratic sites.


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