Astrobiology — the study of life beyond Earth — has a rare power in the nation's capital. It can get members of Congress to spend a morning talking about science instead of arguing over budget levels and funding restrictions.
This refreshing event took place on December 4, 2013 when the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing titled "Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond." The timing was lucky, coming a day after the Hubble project announced the detection of atmospheric water on five exoplanets. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) appeared content to geek out on the news, saying "the discovery of even microbes on another planet would be the most newsworthy story in decades."
The Committee heard from a panel consisting of Mary Voytek of NASA, Sara Seagar of MIT, and historian Steven Dick, who holds the Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) remarked that he'd "never seen so much intelligence at one table."
Seagar explained that we are poised to cross a great threshold in space exploration. We may discover "true Earths" with signs of life within a decade using the upcoming Webb Space Telescope, in scenarios where there is a clear biosignature on a relatively nearby exoplanet. Her guess, though, is that the discovery of biosignatures will require the next-generation telescope after Webb, putting the discovery several decades in the future. Assuming life is there to be found, of course.
The witnesses advocated for projects that would accelerate such a discovery. Seagar suggested that we'd get a much better view of exoplanets using a starshade — a flower-shaped screen floating in space. Dick proposed re-funding the search for radio signals with Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to ensure we're looking for both microbial and advanced forms of life.
Asked by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) what would happen if we did find life, Voytek credited the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program with taking the first steps in examining our societal response. DoSER held an event in June 2013 that looked at some of these big questions.
Dick summed up the excitement that he sees when people learn about this field. "Astrobiology embodies the most important ideal of discovery, explorations, and inspiring our explorers for the next generation," he said. "No better hook exists to get students interested in science."
Written testimony and an archived webcast of the hearing are available on the Committee website.
- Stephen Freeland and the search for life on other planets