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2005 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  JUL 2004 – JUN 2005

Bruce Runnegar
NAI Director: Bruce Runnegar
Letter from the Director: 2005 NAI Annual Report

Astrobiology thrives. This was strikingly obvious at the NAI 2005 “all hands” meeting of the Astrobiology Institute, hosted by the University of Colorado NAI Team, in Boulder, last March. A majority of the 500 participants were young astrobiologists who are making important experimental, observational, and theoretical contributions towards understanding how life originates and evolves, here and elsewhere. The sessions were lively and comfortably multidisciplinary in a way that was not seen in the early days of the Institute.

This year, these and the other achievements of the NASA Astrobiology Institute are made available in a new interactive way, by means of a of fully-searchable annual report that is seamlessly spliced to the “team pages” on the NAI website (http://nai.nasa.gov/team). I encourage you to browse, search, and read. The NAI Annual Reports (previous years are also available) are becoming an important ongoing resource for information about astrobiology, especially in the context of student education.

NAI is all about network science. The 16 current NAI Teams extend across the United States from Hawaii to Massachusetts . Each Team has its own internal and external investigators and collaborators. Student involvement is a vital aspect of NAI science and education, so it was particularly rewarding to participate in two outstanding student-organized events: “NAI Summer Student Seminars,” consecutive Friday videoconferences, conceived and given by summer interns at several NAI team sites; and the second Astrobiology Graduate Conference, organized by students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla for astrobiology graduate students worldwide. These are events we must endeavor to keep on the annual astrobiology calendar.

As the NAI matures, cross-team collaborations become increasingly important. Core astrobiological topics such as cryomicrobiology, the limits to habitability, and planetary-scale biosignatures are being vigorously investigated by organized inter-team activities and community-wide focus groups. Recent NAI workshops aimed at developing collaborative community-wide research dealt with methane on Mars (May), protoplanetary disk evolution (October), and microbial systems in the context of astrobiological exploration (November).

Many NAI teams carry out their research in partnership with other national agencies (NSF, DOE) and laboratories (Argonne NL, Joint Genome Institute, Lawrence Livermore NL). For example, major funding for the University of Rhode Island 's investigations of the deep subsurface biosphere come from the NSF-supported International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). NAI is exploring ways to extend these kinds of synergies.

International partnerships are aimed at collaborative research at Mars analog sites and common scientific, educational, and training goals. NAI has formal partnership agreements with astrobiological organizations in Australia, Europe, France, Russia, Spain, and the U.K. and connections with many other national organizations through the European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA), the International Federation of Astrobiology Organizations (FAO), Bioastronomy (Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union), and the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL).

NAI has a long-standing partnership with the Spanish Centro de Astrobiolog√≠a (CAB) for an annual summer school in astrobiology. Resources provided by both organizations provide opportunities for about 40 students per year from both sides of the Atlantic . This year’s school covered “Titan, Prebiotic Chemistry and the Origin of Life” (nai.nasa.gov/UIMP/Titan) with contributions from American and European scientists intimately involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission.

Last, but not least, NAI’s achievements also depend on maintaining the distributed organization, deploying the funding, organizing and implementing collective activities such as NAI 2005, the NAI Fellows Program, the NAI website, and, of course, producing the NAI Annual Report. These, and other largely “background” tasks, are handled with great care and dedication by my talented and devoted colleagues at NAI Central. Please thank them for their considerable efforts whenever and wherever you can.

Bruce Runnegar