I regret that the formatting of this column was askew earlier; I hope it didn’t make reading too difficult. But now those problems are fixed.
Behind the front page space science discoveries that tell us about the intricacies and wonders of our world are generally years of technical and intellectual development, years of planning and refining, years of problem-defining and problem-solving. And before all this, there also years of brainstorming, analysis and strategizing about which science goals should have the highest priorities and which might be most attainable.
That latter process is underway now in regarding the search for life in the solar system and beyond, with numerous teams of scientists tackling specific areas of interest and concern and turning their group discussions into white papers. In this case, the white papers will then go on to the National Academy of Sciences for a blue-ribbon panel review and ultimately recommendations on which subjects are exciting and mature enough for inclusion in a decadal survey and possible funding.
This is a generally little-known part of the process that results in discoveries, but scientists certainly understand how they are essential. That’s why hundreds of scientists contribute their ideas and time — often unpaid — to help put together these foundational documents.
With its call for extraterrestrial habitability white papers, the NAS got more than 20 diverse and often deeply thought out offerings. The papers will be studied now by an ad hoc, blue ribbon committee of scientists selected by the NAS, which will have the first of two public meetings in Irvine, Calif. on Jan. 16-18.
Then their recommendations go up further to the decadal survey teams that will set formal NASA priorities for the field of astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science. This community-based process that has worked well for many scientific disciplines since they began in the late 1950s.
I’m particularly familiar with two of these white paper processes — one produced at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo and the other with NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS.) What they have to say is most interesting.… Read more