NASA has been at the forefront of life detection efforts since the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s. NASA’s first exobiology research award went to Wolf Vishniac in 1959 for the “Wolf Trap” Life Detector, which was designed to fly on a Viking lander (it did not fly on the mission). NASA established an Exobiology Program in 1970. Building on the results of research funded by Exobiology, the NASA Astrobiology Program, incorporating Exobiology, was established in 1998. Since then, the field of astrobiology has grown and matured significantly. The community faces new challenges such as instrumentation development for life detection and the application of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and next-generation computing to the characterization of exoplanets.
When NASA’s Planetary Science Division reorganized its R&A programs in 2013, the Exobiology Program was revised slightly, with research into volatile delivery moved to the new Emerging Worlds Program and research into conditions for planetary habitability moved to the Habitable Worlds Program.
At the same time, the Astrobiology Science & Technology for Instrument Development (ASTID) Program was folded into two new Planetary Science Division-wide R&A programs: Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO) and Maturation of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE).
The Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program, which supported scientifically-driven robotic exploration of extreme environments that are analogous to suspected habitable environments on other planetary bodies, was combined with the Moon and Mars Analog Mission Activities Program (MMAMA) in 2014 to form the Planetary Science and Technology through Analog Research (PSTAR) Program.
The NASA Astrobiology Institute, established in 1998, is a cross-divisional scientific research program funded by NASA’s Planetary Science and Astrophysics Divisions that has supported interdisciplinary research teams using five-year Cooperative Agreement Notices (CANs). In 2014, responding to the increasing complexity and diversity of the emerging exoplanet research community, the Astrobiology Program created a new model for providing minimal coordination support, in the form of the first NASA Astrobiology Research Coordination Network, the Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS). Five teams that were proposed as part of the CANs and selected for funding by the Astrobiology Program, together with 13 additional teams funded through Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) programs in the Planetary Science and Astrophysics Divisions, formed NExSS.
Building on the success of NExSS, the Astrobiology Program is creating a new structure for the community of researchers it supports, by forming additional RCNs, and by early 2020, the NAI will be sunsetted and the five RCNs will be fully active. The new RCNs will focus on life detection; prebiotic chemistry and the early earth; ocean worlds; and from early cells to multicellularity.