Issue 15 - May 2015
By Wes Traub
The search for life is accelerating! The science, the search, and the studies each gained ground recently.
Science.Two events stand out for me. First, at the “Life in the Universe” symposium at the Earth-Life Science Institute of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, we heard a lot about the possibilities of life on other planets, and the means for detecting it, but the talk that surprised me the most was by Nicholas Hud (Georgia Tech) who championed the idea that proto-RNA molecules could have self-assembled themselves on the exposed surface of the early Earth through the daily cycle of hydrating from a local puddle of water, solar heating, and subsequent drying out; if correct, this means that life could start under fairly ordinary circumstances on a suitable planet. Second, John Sutherland (University of Cambridge) finds a chemical pathway to the origin of RNA and the materials for a cell, using ingredients that were probably present on the early Earth: hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and UV light, reported in http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v7/n4/full/nchem.2202.html.
Search. Radial velocity (RV) searches for nearby planets got a big boost with the announcement that NASA and the NSF are collaborating on an RV spectrometer on the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak, through a competitive solicitation for proposals that were submitted in April. This is good news for exoplanet-seeking space missions because this spectrometer will enable a more intensive search for planets around nearby stars, both to follow-up from discoveries by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), for example, and also to provide targets for investigation by James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Wide-Field Infrared Survey-Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (WFIRST-AFTA), for example.
- WFIRST-AFTA, Exo-S, and Exo-C all issued final reports in January, at http://wfirst.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/sdt_public/WFIRST-AFTA_SDT_Report_150310_Final.pdf, http://exep.jpl.nasa.gov/stdt/Exo-S_Starshade_Probe_Class_Final_Report_150312_URS250118.pdf and http://exep.jpl.nasa.gov/stdt/Exo-C_Final_Report_for_Unlimited_Release_150323.pdf. The WFIRST report sets the stage for an expected Phase A start in October 2016, and the Exo-S/C reports point the way to missions that could be considered for the Decadal Review in 2020.
- NExSS, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, is a new added-value mechanism to foster communication among scientists who are already funded by NASA to lead the search for life on exoplanets: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-s-nexss-coalition-to-lead-search-for-life-on-distant-worlds, formed in April by NASA.
- There is a brand-new institute for the study of exoplanets at Cornell, inaugurated this May, led by Lisa Kaltenegger, and named the Carl Sagan Institute. See the news flash and a photo of Ann Druyan dedicating the institute at http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2015/05/institute-pale-blue-dots-renamed-honor-carl-sagan.