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2007 Annual Science Report

University of Hawaii, Manoa Reporting  |  JUL 2006 – JUN 2007

Executive Summary

Water is the medium in which the chemistry of all Earth’s life takes place. Water is the habitat in which life first emerged and in which all of it still thrives. Water has modified Earth’s geology and climate to a degree that has allowed life to persist to the present epoch. The University of Hawaii NAI team creates a research and education framework that links the biological, chemical, geological, and astronomical sciences to better understand the origin, history, distribution, and role of water as it relates to life in the universe. We focus on scenarios involving the sources and distribution of water in planetary systems and the delivery and incorporation of water into rocky planets that orbit within stellar habitable zones. Our framework connects research on major aspects of planetary water — in effect we aim to understand the terms of a "watery Drake equation:

  • Water is formed in the interstellar medium and in the denser molecular clouds that give rise to star-forming regions. Differences in elemental abundance, gas-phase chemistry, and grain chemistry will result in measurable variation in the abundance of water in those regions. Our team uses sub-millimeter and infrared facilities to to characterize and understand the environments where water exists in space.
  • Comet ices preserve a chemical record of this precursor interstellar material, and detailed remote measurements of the isotopes of hydrogen in these icy bodies has shown that comets contributed some, but not all of the water to the Earth’s oceans. Comets are also rich in the organic materials which are essential for life on Earth, and team members will investigate the inventory of both organics and ices in these small outer solar system denizens: comets, Centaurs and Kuiper Belt objects.
  • Lab investigations explore the physical chemistry associated with low temperature ice processes. Because of the high abundance of water ice in the interstellar medium, water has played a vital role in physical and chemical processes that have lead to the formation of astrobiologically important molecules. We investigate the physical processes of abiotic formation of organic compounds in extraterrestrial environments such as molecular clouds and the crucial role that water has played in their formation.
  • We are investigating the cosmochemical fingerprints of our early solar system by studying the minerals in meteorites that formed as a result of interaction with liquid water early in the solar system. The meteorites record the incorporation of water into silicate material in the primordial Solar System as an early step in its eventual inclusion in larger bodies, including planets. This record in meteorites shows that a large range of water abundance existed in the early Solar System, perhaps as a result of removal of water from the warm interior of the primordial nebula.
  • Mars is the planet most resembling Earth, it contains unambiguous evidence for the activity of past and present water, and is probably the most likely to host or have hosted extant or extinct life. Studies of the history and action of water on Mars are thus of great importance in this regard. Our team models the hydrothermal and low-temperature alteration of crustal minerals and rocks by water, and are combining this with data from Earth observations and recent Mars missions to assess the Mars water inventory and its habitability.
  • Water has been involved in life since its first appearance on early Earth. Leading life origin theories invoke prebiotic chemistry in low-temperature aqueous solutions, supplied with prebiotic molecules by atmospheric chemistry, or in the hydrothermal brines produced by high-temperature water-rock interactions. The first 3 Gy of life on this planet was played out entirely in aquatic environments. Water is also involved in geochemical reactions that maintain surface conditions permissive of life. The presence of water significantly alters the properties of minerals in Earth’s crust and mantle, something crucial to the operation of plate tectonics. We are investigating the water-rock chemistry in the deep oceans and its relation to habitats for life. The reaction between silicate rocks and water, at high temperature (submarine hot springs near mid ocean ridges), produces aqueous fluids and altered mineral surfaces whose thermodynamic disequilibria are potential energy sources for life.
  • Besides water, life also requires a source of carbon and nutrients, and an environment that is conducive to the propagation of genetic information. Many aquatic environments on Earth are extreme from this point of view. By studying these we can better understand what may limit the origin and persistence of life in aquatic habitats elsewhere in the universe. These extreme environments include lava-water interfaces in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as the magma from Kilaeua flows into the ocean, as well as steam geysers, high altitude, and field work in volcanically active Iceland . We are engaging in a comparative study of microbial biodiversity and metabolic activity in these extreme aquatic habitats.
  • We will develop an integrated model of planetary water and its early history on Earth-like planets, which can be used to explore the time-evolution of water on the early Earth, as well as Earth-size planets whose space environment or composition differ from Earth’s. Extraterrestrial aquatic environments may be far more extreme than most encountered on Earth. Water inventories and cycles in Earth-sized planets around other stars may be quite different from our own. Planetary water abundance may be a very sensitive function of the chemistry in the planet-forming nebula, the water abundance in that nebula, the presence of giant planets and factors such as ultraviolet radiation from the central star.
  • Finally, we will develop concepts and prototype hardware for instruments that could be used to detect and characterize life on other planetary bodies. By developing and testing models and exploring the outcomes of alternative scenarios we seek to determine what controls the abundance and distribution of water and hypothetical aqueous habitats in other planetary systems. This research will directly support the NASA search for past or present life on Mars and efforts (such as the NASA Terrestrial Planet Finder) to directly detect and characterize Earth-sized exoplanets.


Science Highlights

Equipment & Infrastructure —

  • Team members lead by G. Huss and K. Keil have established the Keck Cosmochemistry laboratory at the University of Hawaii . This facility which consists of a state-of-the-art Cameca ims 1280 ion microprobe and a confocal Raman microscope is a key facility for interdisciplinary research investigating the origin of the solar system, evolutionary processes in the early solar system, and delivery of astrobiological materials to Earth. The team has been assessing the analytical capability of the system and has produced papers on the chronology and location of chondrule formation within the protosolar disk, and has begun collecting data on short-lived radio nucleides. Finally, work ahs been completed on a proof-of-principle study for our interdisciplinary program to investigate primordial water on Earth.
  • Team member B. Reipurth has been developing a fully robotic facility consisting of twin 16-inch telescopes, one on Mauna Loa and one in Chile to study variable young stellar objects. This VYSOS facility is in the commissioning phase and should begin survey work soon. In addition to helping understand the process of star formation, and the energetics in young disk systems which might be undergoing planet formation, this facility will be useful for a wide range of astronomical survey projects related to astrobiology.
  • Team member B. Glazer used funds from the UHNAI to help develop his in-situ voltametric sensor want to be used to make high spatial resolution geochemical profiles through microbial mats at the seafloor. Glazer and Binsted have received additional funding from NSF to continue the field deployment and to develop new methods for data stream analysis.
  • Team member S. Anderson is leading a major instrumentation development for flight instrumentation for in-situ geochronology and mass spectrometry.

Expeditions and field work —

  • Team member K. Binsted participated in the FMARS experiment sponsored by the Mars Society, where she spent 4 months in the Canadian arctic in a simulation of Mars exploration from April through August 2007. The 6 crew members conducted research examining the effects of the simulation conditions on crew psychology and performance, mission operations, and analyzing resource usage, in addition to investigating the winter-summer seasonal transition and the effects on biological activity above the permafrost layer. All together the team conducted 22 field experiments. As part of an EPO activity, Binsted maintained an active web blog.
  • Team member B. Glazer participated in an expedition to the Loihi seamount off the big island of Hawaii to conduct in situ voltammetric mapping of the chemical redox dynamics within hydrothermally active fuids.
  • In collaboration with UHNAI team member E. Gaidos, collaborator Th. Thorsteinsson (NEA, Iceland ) and an Icelandic team conducted a 9-day field campaign in June 2006 in the Eastern Skaftar cauldron in Iceland . Three boreholes were drilled through the ice shelf at the center of the cauldron into a subglacial lake 100m deep at a depth of 270-290m, and eight one-liter samples were retrieved from different lake depths for analysis.

Astronomy — Astrophysical investigations within the group range from observations and modeling of the interstellar chemical building blocks of precursor solar system material (J. Keane), to studies of young low-mass stars to the work that E. Shkolnik is pursuing regarding extrasolar planet — star interactions, both spectroscopically examining evidence for the interaction of stellar and planetary magnetic fields to looking for evidence of emission lines indicative of cooling in hot Jupiters. Planetary investigations of small icy bodies within our solar system continues to be a strong astronomical focus within the group. Team member Jewitt and his students have been investigating the properties of the Main Belt Comets, A. Delsanti, D. Jewitt and K. Meech have been studying the physical properties of Kuiper belt objects and comes, and Meech and collaborators have been developing thermal and dust models of these small bodies. Team member J. Kleyna is working with the Pan STARRS survey telescope team to develop detection software to survey for new Main Belt Comets.

Solar System Formation: Modeling — Team member N. Haghighipour has been collaborating with other members of the UHNAI team as well as other teams to systematically investigate several areas of planet formation that are not well understood. This includes new mechanisms for forming planetesimals, the role of the giant planet gaseous envelope in capturing planetesimals during formation, an understanding of stability regions for irregular satellite formation in gas giant systems and the conditions for formation of habitable planets n binary systems.

Mars Science — Postdoctoral fellow N. Schorghofer has completed modeling to explain the vast amounts of ice seen by recent space missions in terms of a model of Mars ice ages. The new theory describes what happened to ice accumulated 4-5 million years ago as the rotation axis of Mars wobbled. The ice today is a mixture of old ice and ice accumulated by diffusion of water vapor into the regolith. Work with Mars mission data, specifically TES spectra by K. Stockstill shows a range of surface mineralogies in the Amazonic Planitia craters, but with and abundance of olivines and low presence of clays — implying limited contact with water. Stockstill is also using THEMIS data to better understand the geologic context of Mars surface sulfate deposits that are important records of water-related processes.

Chemistry — Team members R. Kaiser has an ice chemistry lab which has been very productive. Nearly a dozen projects have been undertaken by Kaiser, W. Zheng , in collaboration with others to understand the physical processes of formation and alteration of chemicals in space. In particular, related to solar system astronomical observations were projects related to amorphization and crystallization of ice in space, and the phases and transitions of ammonia ice.

Biology — Team member G. Phillip is using a supertree genomic analysis to try to understand phylogentic relationships among metazoa and eukarya which is critical for understanding the origin of complex life. In another microbiology project, team member M. Brown has been collaborating with S. Donachie to understand the processes supporting the large microbial diversity in lava caves on the Big Island of Hawaii. Cave conditions may have been similar to conditions that prevailed on early earth. Preliminary data shows novel and deep evolutionary lineages in the cave biofilms, and a metagenomic analysis of the biofilm community.

Biogeochemistry — Team member B. Glazer continues his investigations of redox dynamics within hydrothermally active fluids from Loihi seamount, which support a community of iron oxidizing bacteria. Elsewhere in the Pacific, team member M. Mottl is developing theoretical models to investigate the extreme (high pH) environments in the Mariana forearc subduction system to understand the processes that fuel the shallow subseafloor extremophilic communities. Team member Cowen is using UHNAI resources to help modify seafloor CORK instrumentation to explore low temperature hydrothermal ocean fluids and the deep seafloor biosphere in the Juan de Fuca Ridge by injection of dissolved and particle tracers into several boreholes. Cowen is also a part of a rapid response team to monitor microbial and geochemical changes during seafloor eruptions at mid-ocean ridges.

Interdisciplinary enterprises — As a result of several of the UHNAI interdisciplinary efforts, the team is collaborating with the Goddard, UCLA and Univ. Colorado teams to host an interdisciplinary workshop in the style of a Gordon conference to be held in Hawaii . The goal will be to identify key areas of research where interdisciplinary approaches might yield the most progress.

Mission Involvement

  • UH NAI Principal Investigator K. Meech is a co-Investigator on NASA’s StardustNExT and EPOXI missions. The StardustNExT mission will fly past the Deep Impact target 9P/Tempel 1, and image the impact crater and both old and new surfaces, for the first time giving a detailed look at changes caused by a perihelion passage. The EPOXI mission will re-direct the Deep Impact spacecraft to fly past a new target, 85P/Boethin, thus increasing our understanding of the diversity of these small primitive bodies. In addition to encounter science, Meech is in charge of characterizing the target comets as well as coordinating international ground-based and Earth-orbital observations for both missions.
  • Co-I Toby Owen is heavily involved with the Cassini Saturn mission.
  • The discovery of a new class of objects in the main asteroid belt, the Main Belt Comets, is leading to the UHNAI development of a proposal for a NASA Discovery class mission to explore these bodies.

Scientific Visitor Program

The UHNAI team has a vigorous visitor program. We invite colleagues to come visit us for both individual research collaborations with team members and interdisciplinary collaborations. Each visitor in addition to their research efforts during the visit is asked to give one or more seminars or participate in outreach activities. The following visitors were supported during the reporting period:

  • James Bauer (JPL) — Hosted by A. Delsanti. Bauer came out for a week to work on spectral modeling of KBO near-IR data, and in addition presented a seminar on his work on Triton volcanism as observed from the Hubble Space Telescope.
  • Dina Prialnik ( Tel Aviv University ) — Hosted by K. Meech and D. Jewitt. Prialnik spent 3 weeks during Feb 2007 developing thermal models for activity on comet Tempel 1 outbursts, investigating the smooth flow regions in the surface of comet Tempel 1 seen by the Deep Impact mission, and did some thermal modeling of the new Main Belt Comets as an assessment of ice longevity for our teams Discovery mission development. In addition, Meech and Prialnik collaborated on a project to understand activity in comets at large distances.

Leveraged Resources

The infrastructure, funding and interdisciplinary research environment has enabled our team to leverage a significant level of local and external resources. Some of these external resources have been awarded as a direct result of the research conducted by our interdisciplinary research team at UH, and in other cases the presence of a strong team which promises interdisciplinary use of new facilities has been the key to getting the support. All together, these outside and local resources amount to approximately $14.0M. These new initiatives involve the following activities

  • The establishment of the Keck Cosmochemistry Laboratory and Raman facilities
  • Construction of new seafloor observatories and research funding for deep seafloor microbial studies and tracer transport studies
  • Development of miniaturized in-situ instrumentation for space exploration
  • Funding from the Chancellor’s office for the preparatory work for a Discovery mission based on the research endeavors of our team
  • Team member J. Cowen received a large NSF Microbial Observaotry grant for downhole seafloor basement biosphere studies as a result of funding the UHNAI has provided for his research.
  • External funding for augmentation for ice irradiation experiments, including a plan to request private funds to augment the facility with a UV source.

Scientific Awards

Team members Ralf Kaiser and Michael Liu received the University of Hawaii Regent’s Awards for Excellence in Research. Kaiser was cited for his progress toward understanding how astrobiologically important molecules form in extraterrestrial environments, and Liu for his work on high resolution imaging of proto-planetary disks, brown dwarfs and star formation. The latter workshop has lead to the publication of a review paper in Science.

Scientific Conferences & Meetings

American Astronomical Society Special Sessions

The UHNAI team as been active in promoting astrobiology at national meetings.

  • Haghighipour and Meech organized a special session on the Formation and Detection of Habitable Planets at the January 2007 AAS meeting in Seattle . This session featured speakers from NAI teams, and was very well attended.
  • At the AAS Honolulu Meeting during June 2007, the UHNAI team organized 2 topical sessions: “Water in Habitable Plantary systems” (full day), and “Hot Earths: Formation, Detection, and Structure”

Star and Planet Formation Day

Michael Liu and B. Reipurth organized this year’s Star and Planet Formation Day at the Institute for Astronomy in Manoa. This year’s annual event was held a little later than usual, in July, but the preparation and planning was in the year covered by this report. Twenty talks were presented on a variety of topics in star and planet formation, all by researchers residing within one of the institutes in the Hawaiian islands . About 50 persons attended. The goal of these yearly mini-workshops, of which this is the third, is to bring together all active researchers within Hawaii in the field of star and planet formation, the early solar system, and meteoritics, to present on-going research, and to stimulate joint research across the boundaries of these disciplines.

Bioastronomy 2007: Molecules, Microbes and Extraterrestrial Life: July 16-20, 2007

Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) focuses on the topic of Bioastronomy, and as President of the Commission, it was the responsibility of the UHNAI PI, K. Meech to lead in the selection of the venue for the tri-annual meeting of the Commission. The series of Bioastronomy meetings have played an important role in integrating the broader interests and techniques of both astronomy and biology to understand the origin and evolution of our solar system, and of living systems in the universe. The theme of the 2007 meeting, “Molecules, Microbes and Extraterrestrial Life’', dealt with topics relevant both to solar system origins as well as to the NASA Vision of the Moon, Mars and Beyond. The UHNAI team agreed to help support the organization of the meeting. This was the only major international astrobiology meeting in 2007. Several exciting milestones for astrobiology occurred and will occur during the 2006-2008 time period, making it a timely conference: the merged BIMA/OVRO millimeter array, CARMA, had its first call for proposals in 2006, and SETI observations should begin on the Allen Telescope Array. Relevant to understanding solar system origins and in the context of the NASA Vision, there will be the launch of three international lunar missions beginning in July 2007, in addition to the launch of the Dawn Asteroid mission. The Mars Phoenix mission launched in August 2007, followed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Kepler in the fall of 2008. The venue in San Juan Puerto Rico was selected because it is the site of one of the world’s premier radio observatories, as well as an astrobiologically relevant environment for research (halophiles, psychrophiles, astrophysical investigation of pre-biotic molecules, and star formation).

The Scientific Organizing Committee consisted of 12 members, of which most were NAI members, and the Local Organizing Committee was chaired by UHNAI PI, K. Meech. The UHNAI and the Institute for Astronomy provided financial support to the meeting in the form of staffing both for pre-meeting support, and participation by 8 postdocs at the conference. During the period of performance of this report an international program of 25 invited speakers, 50 oral presentations, and 90 poster talks were planned. In addition, a full day EPO activity was designed in collaboration with the NAI SETI team and the Arecibo Observatory for local teachers. Finally, the UHNAI collaborated with the Penn State and Goddard NAI teams to help coordinate a meeting of AbGradCon to be held just prior to the main meeting. There will be a published Proceedings, edited by NAI team members K. Meech, M. Mumma, J. Siefert and D. Werthimer.

Titan Workshop

Saturn’s moon Titan is the only solar system body besides Earth with a thick atmosphere and is widely considered as a natural laboratory on the planetary scale to understand the pre-biotic chemistry on proto-Earth. The Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan has opened a new chapter in Solar System exploration and extraterrestrial atmospheric chemistry. UHNAI co-I R. Kaiser organized an international workshop held in Honolulu from Feb 5-7, 2007, bringing together modelers, observers, mission specialists, physical and organic chemists, lab experimentalists and theoreticians to explore the current boundaries of planetary science and chemistry. The workshop featured invited and contributed talks from 30 speakers. It is intended that this become an annual event, and a second workshop is planned for Miami Florida from March 24-26, 2008.

Chronology of Meteorites and the Early Solar System

UHNAI is sponsoring a workshop to be held on Kauai , Hawaii Nov 5-7 aimed at understanding the chronology of the processes in the early Solar System as revealed by meteorites. This interdisciplinary event will focus on the astrophysical setting of Solar System formation, the origin of short-lived radioisotopes, and the chronology of nebular and asteroidal process, as recorded in the cosmochemical record contained within meteorites and other small bodies. UHNAI team members K. Keil, S. Krot , E. Scott, G. Huss, and B. Reipurth are among the program convenors and are on the scientific organizing committee. To date over 300 abstracts have been submitted to this meeting.

Origin of Earth’s Water

The origin of water and organics on Earth and the terrestrial planets is one of the most fundamental unanswered questions about the early solar system. The location of the regions within the nascent solar system, which may have fed water-rich material to the Earth during accretion, is under intense debate. These issues are at the forefront of the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology, and part of the NASA Exploration Vision. Researchers, both within and collaborating with the NAI, are key to identifying where cross-cutting interdisciplinary approaches can make significant progress in this area. The UHNAI team, in collaboration with the Goddard, Univ. CO and UCLA teams will host a 3 day workshop to discuss the issues related to the origin of water on Earth and to identify where interdisciplinary approaches might yield the most progress. Planning for the Feb. 2008 activity has begun.

Staffing and Infrastructure

UHNAI postdocs Audrey Delsanti and Andy Boal left for permanent positions during the fall 2006; Audrey taking up a research/teaching position at the Univ. Paris, and Andy taking up a position at Los Alamos . In addition, the UHNAI team is preparing to say goodbye to 3 of our postdocs who have been offered permanent positions: Mark Brown (position in a biotech firm in Sydney, Australia, molecular biology); Lysa Chizmadia (faculty position at the University of Puerto Rico, cosmochemistry), and Weijun Zheng (faculty position at the Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences). Weijun’s Institute is interested in establishing collaborations with our astrobiology group.

Gayle Phillip (microbiology) joined the group during January 2007 to work on metagenomics and we have hired one new postdoc for the group, to work on the VYSOS telescope project, Martin Paegert, who will be arriving in September 2007.

Education/Public Outreach Activities

Formal Education

  • Astrobiology Courses : Team members are increasing their development and offerings of interdisciplinary courses through the University of Hawaii . The courses offered for this reporting period include:








Astrobiology Seminar: Follow the Ice

Meech; Shorghofer


Special Topics in Star Formation






Computational Astrobiology Summer School



Microbial Oceanography from Genomes to Biomes

Karl, Church, DeLong, Rappe


  • Computational Astrobiology Summer School — The first Computational Astrobiology Summer School (CASS) was a 3-week program in the summer of 2006, followed by a semester of mentored independent work, with the following goals:

    • To introduce computer science and engineering (CS&E) graduate students to the field of astrobiology,
    • To introduce astrobiologists to the tools and techniques that current methods in CS&E can provide, and
    • To encourage interdisciplinary projects that will result in advances in astrobiology.

To achieve these goals, we invited nine talented and enthusiastic graduate students in CS&E and related fields to the University of Hawaii (UH) from July 24 to August 11. During this time, they got a crash course in astrobiology, with talks from both UH astrobiologists and invited speakers from other NAI Teams. They also learned about the needs of astrobiology researchers and, in teams and as individuals, designed the technological means to meet those needs. Once the summer school was over, they returned to their home institutions, where they continued to work on their projects over the fall semester, under the supervision of professors at their home institutions and supported by the program supervisor at UH. Several participants received travel support to present the results of their projects at the Bioastronomy 2007 meeting. The Participants and projects are listed in the table below.




Dimitra Atri


Terrestrial effects of a nearby supernova explosion

Xin Chen


Telescope scheduling

Jane Curnutt


Cellular automata and the patchiness problem in arid regions

Yannick Gingras


Protein stability analysis and hardware acceleration of bioinformatics tools

Marc LePape


Adaptable interfaces for varying g environments

Amanda Morrow

Penn State

Directly determining the fundamental properties of low mass stars / brown dwarfs

Pavel Senin


Modeling ices in star-forming clouds: the MCMC approach

Rich Warren


Evolution of intelligence: social vs. individual learning

Yuna Yang


Habitable zones of binary stars

  • Microbial Oceanography from Genomes to Biomes — the course explored the dynamic and fundamental role that marine microbes play in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry. Students not only participated in lectures, but students had the opportunity to go on 2 research cruises aboard the R/V Kilo Manoa, as well as participate in scientific seminars.
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates Astrobiology Program — The Institute for Astronomy has an NSF-sponsored REU program. UHNAI postdocs N. Haghighipour and L. Chizmadia sponsored 3 REU student projects during the summer 2006, and one project in 2007, with projects involving the possibility of additional planets in the g Cephei binary planetary system, habitable planets in the planetary system of HD69830, and on using Fe and Mg in Olivine as an indicator of asteroidal hydrothermal alteration.
  • Space Grant Fellowships — N. Schorghofer has overseen the research of two undergraduate students in the Space Grant Program to study the formation of the Martian slope streaks, which are analogous to terrestrial features casued by melting of seasonal frost.

K-12 Education and Public Outreach

Our EPO activities are grouped into K-14 workshops for students and teachers, public talks, involvement in the Hawaii State Science Fair. In addition, we have been developing partnerships for cost sharing and have been expanding program opportunities by teaming with others. These teaming opportunities include the Bishop Museum , Oahu Women in Technology, the Maui Economic Development Board, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the DeKalb Observatory and the Haleakala astronomy club. In addition there have been relationships developed with State and Federal programs which are enabling our activities to reach gifted Native Hawaiian students as well as disadvantaged students. During the year, our EPO activities have included workshops at 7 national and international conferences.

In addition, we have hosted our major teacher summer program in Hawaii, as well as local EPO events for the public.

  • Alii Summer Teacher Workshop — The Astrobiology Laboratory Institute for Instructors is held for 1 week each summer and gives teachers hands on experience and content background in astrobiology, with the participation of a large fraction of our team.
  • Search for Life in the Universe — In conjunction with the CASS summer school, the UHNAI team hosted a public debate featuring Chris McKay (NASA Ames) and Seth Shostak (SETI Institute) exploring the question of “Does Extraterrestrial Life Exist?