Nov. 1, 2018
Program News

Astrobiology Program FAQs


NASA has a long history of supporting research in the search for life; NASA’s first Exobiology grant was awarded in 1959 for the development of the “Wolf Trap,” an instrument to detect microbial life on the surface of another planet. As the field expanded over the following decades, a broader view of the search for life beyond Earth was needed, and the concept of astrobiology was developed to capture wider questions concerning habitability. The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) was established in 1998 to encourage and sustain research in astrobiology after the announcement of purported fossil microbes in a Martian meteorite. Due to the efforts of the NAI, research in astrobiology has matured significantly. Since then, new frontiers have emerged and await exploration by the astrobiology community, including instrumentation development for life detection and the application of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and next-generation computing to the characterization of exoplanets.

NASA SMD is committed to interdisciplinary and interdivisional research. NASA helped to create Planetary Science, including Exobiology (1960s), and Earth Systems Science (1970s) and, as they matured, created HQ organizations to manage missions in these areas. Now, NASA, as the main supporter of Astrobiology research, has innovated a new way of promoting interactions across its research programs and its divisions to advance the science and further the goals of understanding our origins and discovering life elsewhere as described in the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy.

The NASA Astrobiology Program has announced a new programmatic infrastructure. Known as Research Coordination Networks (RCNs), and first deployed as the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), RCNs bring together researchers who are funded from a variety of sources into interdisciplinary, topically-focused research groups. By early 2020, the NASA Astrobiology Program will have activated five RCNs — four new ones plus NExSS — each organized around a key research topic identified in the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy: prebiotic chemistry and the early Earth; early metabolism, evolution, and complexity; life detection on other worlds; habitable worlds (initially focused on ocean worlds); and exoplanet system science. The NAI will conclude activities at the end of 2019, at which time the remaining teams will be folded into relevant RCNs. In the mid-2019 timeframe, the Astrobiology Program will be issuing a new solicitation for large geographically-distributed teams with multi-year interdisciplinary research plans, into focused questions of Astrobiology, tentatively titled Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR). Awardees from this solicitation will be invited to join a relevant RCN, along with awardees from other SMD solicitations (e.g., Exobiology, Habitable Worlds, Exoplanet Research) whose research projects are on relevant topics.

This document contains answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the Astrobiology Program organized by topical areas:

NASA Astrobiology Program

Funding Astrobiology Research

Coordinating Astrobiology Research




(Scroll down for responses)



NASA Astrobiology Program

What is the NASA Astrobiology Program?


The NASA Astrobiology Program supports research that leads to a better understanding of how life emerged and evolved on Earth, what conditions make environments in our universe capable of supporting life, and what the distribution of habitable worlds and life beyond Earth might be. It is considered an important part of the Planetary Science Division’s Research Program. Several NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Research and Analysis (R&A) Programs solicit proposals for astrobiology research. The Astrobiology Program oversees and coordinates research funded by these programs, such as the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), the Exobiology Program, and the Habitable Worlds (HW) Program. Results from these programs of funded projects guide the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy, inform NASA missions, and advance the quest to answer these fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? Where should we search for it?

What are the major goals of the NASA Astrobiology Program?


The major goals of the Astrobiology Program are to advance research in Astrobiology, to sustain and expand an interdisciplinary community, and to communicate the scientific findings and the significance of this research to many audiences including the general public.

What is the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy and what is its role in the Astrobiology Program?


The 2015 Astrobiology Strategy identifies questions to guide astrobiology research in the lab, in the field, and in experiments flown on planetary science missions.

In preparing the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy, almost 200 members of the astrobiology community worked together to define goals and objectives for astrobiology research over the next decade. The community identified six major topics of research in the field today:

  • Identifying abiotic sources of organic compounds
  • Synthesis and function of macromolecules in the origin of life
  • Early life and increasing complexity
  • Co-evolution of life and the physical environment
  • Identifying, exploring, and characterizing environments for habitability and biosignatures
  • Constructing habitable worlds

The Strategy provides the Astrobiology Program with community input on Program research priorities. Given the fast pace of advances in astrobiology research, the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy will be reviewed every five years to ensure that the priorities are appropriate.

In addition to the Astrobiology Strategy, the Program receives input and guidance from relevant reports prepared by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) (e.g., the PSD Decadal Survey, “Vision and Voyages”) and from various advisory or community-based organizations (e.g., the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, the NASEM Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences, and the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group).

How has the Astrobiology Program evolved over the years?


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.

Who should I contact to learn more about the NASA Astrobiology Program?


Mary Voytek is the Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA and is the Program lead for Scientific Leadership & Collaboration. Dr. Voytek is also Program Officer for PSTAR.

Lindsay Hays is the Deputy Program Scientist for Astrobiology and is the Program lead for Organizational Excellence. Dr. Hays is also Program Officer for Exobiology and PSDNASA Earth and Space Science Fellowships.

Daniella Scalice is the Program’s lead for Communications. The Astrobiology Program aims to inform researchers, students, educators, decision makers and other public audiences about the results of research funded by the program.

Melissa Kirven-Brooks is the Program’s lead for developing the Future Workforce. The Astrobiology Program is a diverse and inclusive research enterprise that uses its position to build the global workforce in Astrobiology and interdisciplinary science.

Mitch Schulte is the Program Officer for Habitable Worlds.

Points of Contact for other NASA programs can be found at: https://science.nasa.gov/researchers/sara/program-officers-list



Funding Astrobiology Research

How does NASA fund astrobiology research?


Several of the NASA Planetary Science Division’s R&A programs, described in SMD’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitation, focus on astrobiology, including Exobiology, Habitable Worlds, Exoplanet Research, and Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research.

How will the NASA Astrobiology Program continue to support large, interdisciplinary research teams?


In the future, proposals will be solicited that describe an interdisciplinary approach to a single, compelling question in astrobiology, and may address a single 2015 Astrobiology Strategy goal or several Science Strategy goals, for projects larger than the scope of the individual research programs, but within the scope of the Research Coordination Networks. The NASA Astrobiology Program will fund these types of awards through a new solicitation tentatively called Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR). When applying to this program, proposing teams will be able to specify which RCN their research would be relevant to, and if selected, which network they would join. PSD is targeting the end of the second quarter of 2019 for the release of the first ICAR solicitation, with proposals targeted to be due in the fourth quarter, and selection of up to 5 teams announced in early 2020. ICAR calls will occur on the order of every two years, and will stagger RCN topics that will be included.

How will the Astrobiology Program support science workshops?


Support for community meetings that advance the goals and objectives of the Astrobiology Program will be provided either directly by the Astrobiology program (e.g. limited support for virtual meetings), or for specific aspects of in-person meetings (e.g., travel support or registration fee support for early career scientists) by the ROSES call for proposals for Topical Workshops, Symposia, and Conferences (TWSC). For TWSC, two of the stated goals are 1) to increase the efficiency of investigators through the open exchange of ideas, and 2) expose investigators to new subject areas.

How will the Astrobiology Program support early-career researchers?


Early-career scientists are encouraged to apply to any research program relevant to their research interests, and to contact the appropriate program officers if they have any questions. In addition to relevant research programs, NASA offers a variety of awards to support early- career scientists, such as:

NESSF: Graduate students working towards a Masters or PhD and interested in astrobiology research fields (including the core context, ‘Searing for Life Elsewhere’ in NASA’s 2018 Strategic Plan) can apply to the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) program.

NPP: The Astrobiology NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) is available for applicants working with Principal Investigators funded by any program under the Astrobiology Program. This includes Exobiology, Habitable Worlds, PSTAR, PICASSO, MatISSE, and ICAR awards.

ECA: The Planetary Science Division’s Early Career Awards (ECA) program (formerly Early Career Fellowship, ECF) is currently being revised, and therefore was not solicited as part of ROSES in 2018. When the revised program is solicited, it will provide support for researchers in the first stage of their career to set up a research program.

Where do I apply for support if I’m interested in…


… Technology Development?


    PSTAR: If the technology is focused on exploring environments on Earth that are potentially analogous to habitable environments on other planetary bodies, the research would be most relevant to Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research (PSTAR).

    PICASSO: If the technology is part of instrument development in the early stages, the research would be most relevant to Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO).

    MatISSE: If the technology is part of maturation of instrument concepts through to the point where they could be proposed to future mission Announcements of Opportunity, the research would be most relevant to Maturation of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE).

… Analog Research?

    PSTAR: If the research is focused on the science environments on Earth that are potentially analogous to habitable environments on other planetary bodies, the research would be most relevant to Planetary Science and Technology through Analog Research (PSTAR).

… Understanding Habitability?

    HW: Research that seeks to use the knowledge of the history of the Earth and life on it as a guide to determine habitability of environments beyond Earth, specifically on Mars, ocean worlds or exoplanets, would be most relevant to the interdivisional program, Habitable Worlds (HW).

… Building a Habitable Planet?


    EW: Research into the formation of our Solar System, including studies of all aspects of materials and processes occurring in and affecting the protoplanetary disk, including those occurring on bodies of any size that may have formed at this stage of Solar System evolution and studies related to the accretion of Solar System bodies after dissipation of the protoplanetary disk, would be relevant to Emerging Worlds (EW).

    HW or SSW: Understanding how processes that occur after planet formation may lead to habitable planets (e.g. volcanism, magnetospheres, global climate change, etc.), would be most relevant to Habitable Worlds (HW) or Solar System Workings (SSW).

… the Distribution of Volatiles in the Universe?

    EW: Research into processes underlying the chemistry and physics of large and small bodies in the Solar System, and that lead to current distribution of volatiles in the Solar System up to the time that large planetary bodies were in or near their modern configuration, would be most relevant to Emerging Worlds (EW).

… Biosignatures?

    EXO: Research into developing, testing, and elaborating biosignatures and how they might contribute to the search for life in the Universe would be most relevant to Exobiology (EXO). Research on understanding technosignatures, as specific types of biosignatures, would also be relevant. However, since the Exobiology Program does not solicit proposals to apply biosignatures to particular environments, proposals to search for technosignatures are also not solicited. It should also be noted that the use of ground-based telescopes is funded through the National Science Foundation and the use of space-based telescopes is funded through NASA’s Astrophysics Division.

… Prebiotic Chemistry?

    EXO: Research, both laboratory and theoretical, into the chemical systems that served as precursors for biological molecules on the Earth or elsewhere, would be most relevant to Exobiology (EXO).

… the Evolution of Advanced Life?

    EXO: Research specifically into the biological and environmental factors that lead to the origin of eukaryotes, multicellularity and the distribution of complex life in the universe, as well as those that are essential to multicellular life, would all be relevant to Exobiology (EXO). However, the evolution of intelligent life is not included. Additionally, research into specific groups of advanced organisms, or processes and features of this life that are not broadly applicable to life throughout the Universe are not included.

… Exoplanets?


    XRP: Research into the compositions, dynamics, energetics and chemical behaviors of exoplanets, as well as the detection and characterization of other planetary systems, would be most relevant to the Exoplanets Research Program (XRP).

    HW: Research (theoretical, experimental or field) that improves scientific understanding of the potential for the environment to support life on potentially habitable exoplanets that have conditions roughly comparable to those of Earth (i.e., an Earth analog), would be most relevant to the Habitable Worlds Program.

    EXO: Research into biosignatures aimed at identification and characterization of signals on extrasolar planets that may harbor life would be most relevant to the Exobiology Program.

    APRA: Laboratory (experimental) and computational efforts to explore the spectroscopic properties of atoms and molecules and particulate matter, as well as their chemical, physical, and dynamical properties under astrophysical conditions that could directly impact our understanding of exoplanetary systems in the current epoch would be most relevant to the Laboratory Astrophysics category of the Astrophysics Research and Analysis Program (APRA).

Will awards larger in scope than those appropriate to the current set of SMD R&A programs still be solicited?

    The NASA Astrobiology Program will fund grants for large teams with multi-year research plans through a new ROSES solicitation tentatively named “Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR).”

What process is used to prioritize and select funded investments?


A variety of factors influence how NASA prioritizes its funding investments and those priorities are expressed in NASA’s solicitations. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Decadal Surveys, science community input, identification of knowledge gaps, new scientific discoveries, and the overall strategy of NASA and the program influence the goals of solicitations, such as Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES). Once the scope of research solicitations have been announced, scientific merit, as advised through the peer review process. helps to identify and prioritize appropriate astrobiology research to select for funding, while also weighing budget, programmatic and other priorities.

Will there be another NAI CAN for Cycle 9?


No. Proposals will be solicited through a new call, tentatively called Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR), for projects beyond the scope of the individual Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) programs (such as Habitable Worlds or Exobiology), but within the scope of the Research Coordination Networks. This solicitation will call for proposals for projects taking an interdisciplinary approach to a single, compelling question in astrobiology, addressing a single 2015 Astrobiology Strategy goal or several Strategy goals. The NASA Astrobiology Program will fund ICAR grants. When applying for ICAR grants, teams will be able to specify which RCN their research would be relevant to and which network they would join if selected.

I was previously a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Will the Astrobiology Program continue to solicit multi-million dollar, 5-year awards for astrobiology research?


Yes. In the future, the NASA Astrobiology Program will fund these types of awards through a new solicitation tentatively called Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR). Proposals will be solicited that describe an interdisciplinary approach to a single, compelling question in astrobiology, and that may address a single or several 2015 Astrobiology Strategy goals, for projects larger in scope than individual ROSES programs (such as Habitable Worlds or Exobiology).

I am an early-career scientist and have benefited from NAI support. Will the Astrobiology Program continue to provide this support to Early Career Scientists?


A variety of programs, detailed in Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences offer support to early-career scientists including:

NESSF: Graduate students working towards a Masters or PhD and interested in Astrobiology research fields (including the goal from NASA’s 2014 Strategic Plan to ascertain the content, origin, and evolution of the solar system and the potential for life elsewhere) can apply to the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) program.

NPP: The Astrobiology NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) is available for applicants working with PIs funded by any program under the Astrobiology Program. This includes Exobiology, Habitable Worlds, PSTAR, PICASSO, MatISSE, and ICAR awards.

ECA: The Planetary Science Division’s Early Career Awards (ECA) program (formerly Early Career Fellowship, ECF) is currently being revised, and therefore was not solicited as part of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) in 2018. When the revised program is solicited, it will provide support for researchers in the first stage of their career to set up a research program.

Will the Astrobiology Program continue have international partnerships?


Since its earliest days, the Astrobiology Program through the NAI has established international partnerships to further the goals of the Program. Potential partners could request association with the NAI at a government-to-government level (associate partners) or at the institute-to-organization level (affiliate partners). Both of these partnerships are conducted with no exchange of funds and consist primarily of collaborative scientific exchange, outreach and education activities, and early career training opportunities. The Program is committed to bringing a diversity of perspectives and resources to the field, and will continue to engage international partners. Associate partnerships will remain, but when the NAI is wound down, affiliate partnerships will need to be renegotiated through agreements managed by NASA’s Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR).

How has Astrobiology Program funding responded to emerging topics and shifting programmatic priorities?


The Astrobiology Program budget is designed to afford the flexibility necessary to respond to the dynamic, fast-changing discipline of astrobiology and NASA’s readiness for developing missions in the search for life. The Astrobiology Program’s annual budget is approximately $65 million. This budget is used to fund research proposals selected from Research & Analysis programs, (e.g. Exobiology, Habitable Worlds, etc.) and associated research activities (e.g. workshops). It is a common practice among funding agencies, when presented with meritorious proposals and a programmatic priority exceeding the planned budget, to seek funding from other sources or to adjust the focus of their funding to achieve agency strategic goals. Additionally, funding allocations can be adjusted to accommodate changes in program priorities linked to programmatic needs, or in response to emerging topics or fields.

The Astrobiology Program has developed transient research opportunities to address specific technological or research topics. For example, NASA in collaboration with NSF released LExEn to solicit proposals on the topic of Life in Extreme Environment. The Astrobiology Program also partnered with NSF and KnowInnovation to use an alternative solicitation and review mechanism to encourage high risk, high reward proposals in the area of the origin of translation, a heretofore recalcitrant topic that unifies a central dogma in biology.

More recently, the Astrobiology Program has allocated increasing funds for research in the emerging field of exoplanets system science in order to support the study of habitability and life detection on exoplanets. This resulted in the selection of 5 teams from recent NASA Astrobiology Institute Cooperative Agreement Notices (CANs) along with 13 teams funded from Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitations in PSD and APD, to become part of the first Research Coordination Network, NExSS. Adjustments in Astrobiology Program funding priorities, in this case to provide administrative support for this RCN, are managed by the Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Mary Voytek, with concurrence by the Planetary Research & Analysis Lead, Jonathan Rall, and the Planetary Science Division Director, Lori Glaze (Acting).



Coordinating Astrobiology Research

What mechanisms does the NASA Astrobiology Program employ to coordinate its research investments?


For the past 20 years, one of the major roles of the NASA Astrobiology Program at NASA Headquarters was to support and catalyze collaborative interdisciplinary research in astrobiology across a range of science disciplines and organizations. The primary program element supporting this goal was the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), established as a Virtual Institute (VI). Moving forward, the new Astrobiology Research Coordination Networks will take over much of this role. Additional successful mechanisms of coordinating research that will continue include hosting and sponsoring workshops (e.g., building on the success of Mass Independent Fractionation of Sulfur Isotopes, Upstairs Downstairs, Exoplanet Biosignatures, Exoplanetary Space Weather), provide funding to relevant community meetings, and organize the community to update the Astrobiology Strategy every 5 years. The Astrobiology Program will continue coordinating research investments with partners, such as the NASA and NSF co-sponsored interdisciplinary Ideas Lab that brought together scientists interested in the origin of life. The aim of this Ideas Lab was to facilitate the generation and execution of innovative research projects aimed at identifying and funding potentially transformative research to addressing the origin and early evolution of the modern, two-polymer life system.

What is a Research Coordination Network (RCN)?


A Research Coordination Network (RCN) is a virtual collaboration structure that helps support groups of investigators to communicate and coordinate their research across disciplinary, organizational, divisional, and geographic boundaries. NASA has modified a mechanism utilized by NSF to achieve the research goals for the Astrobiology Program.

The NASA Astrobiology RCNs are a mechanism for community collaboration. Each RCN will have a steering committee comprised of the PIs of all teams who have elected to join to join, both from large teams selected from the ICAR solicitation as well as smaller teams from relevant ROSES R&A programs. Additionally, the NASA Astrobiology Program, along with representatives of relevant research elements and SMD Divisions, will identify co-leads and potential members of the RCN and provide funding to support the logistical requirements of the RCN. The Astrobiology RCNs will be regularly reviewed (~5 years) by a Senior Review-like independent panel of experts to provide input to any decision to continue, modify, or sunset the RCN. Because RCNs are only a method for coordination, the sunsetting of an RCN will have no effect on the primary research award, which will continue through the original duration. New RCNs may also be established as the science in astrobiology evolves, new missions come on line, or the priorities of NASA shift.

Expected outcomes for the Astrobiology Program RCNs:

  • Investigators carry out and propose interdisciplinary research that addresses new topics through new collaborations.
  • Produces a plan for utilization of current mission data (if applicable).
  • Spawns ideas for new and exciting missions, and encourages participation in and contributions to missions from planning through operations (if applicable).
  • Identifies new targeted technologies or instrumentation needed, but not yet reported elsewhere.
  • Influences Decadal Surveys for all NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Divisions
  • Enhances international engagement.
  • Supports continued development of the astrobiology community.

How does the RCN model differ from the Virtual Institute (VI) model?


While the purpose of an RCN is similar to that of a VI, RCNs differ from the VI model in several ways.

Research Coordination NetworkVirtual Institute
Membership is not linked to a specific line of funding and teams do not compete directly. Successful research funding selected through competitions across cooperating SMD Divisions.Membership and funding determined by competition between teams that propose to a single program.
Since members come from many different annually competed solicitations with varying periods of performance (1-5 years), the RCN membership is continually refreshed.Members come from a periodic solicitation (2-3 years) with a fixed period of performance (~5 years), leading to periods of constant membership that is intermittently refreshed.
Member teams vary in size ($-$$$, 1-10+ funded researchers).All member teams are roughly the same size ($$$, ~15+ funded researchers).
Membership is elective. While researchers are eligible to be a member of an RCN if their research grant is selected, they are not required to be a member. Membership is not a criterion for selection of the research grant.Membership and research funding are linked. If research teams are selected, they must become members. Researchers propose to address additional Institute objectives, which is a criterion for selection.
Coordinated through a small team of scientists.Coordinated through a “central node” of NASA administrators.
Very light management (3-4 PIs, part time) with fewer services at the RCN level. Extra services are provided on an as-needed basis by the Astrobiology Program for all members of the broader community.The central node has a larger staff (6-10 FTEs) and overhead, that provides managerial oversight and additional support for its members as well as some of the broader community.
RCNs are effective in situations where the community is already established but benefits from a framework to self-organize topics/research foci.VIs are effective at building an interdisciplinary community from the ground up, building bridges between disparate communities.

How does the NASA RCN differ from the NSF RCN?


The goals of the NASA RCN and the NSF RCN are quite similar, but serve different purposes. The stated goal of the NSF RCN program is to:
“…advance a field or create new directions in research or education by supporting groups of investigators to communicate and coordinate their research, training and educational activities across disciplinary, organizational, geographic and international boundaries. The RCN program provides opportunities to foster new collaborations, including international partnerships, and address interdisciplinary topics. Innovative ideas for implementing novel networking strategies, collaborative technologies, training, broadening participation, and development of community standards for data and meta-data are especially encouraged. RCN awards also do not support primary research. Rather, the RCN program supports the means by which investigators can share information and ideas, coordinate ongoing or planned research activities, foster synthesis and new collaborations, develop community standards, and in other ways advance science and education through communication and sharing of ideas.”

NSF RCN program provides funding to researchers who submit proposals for how they would like to “coordinate” the community. NSF RCNs are relatively short term, one to two years, and focused on specific activities that are fully described in the submitted proposal.

In contrast, NASA RCNs are intended to coordinate the agency’s research investments to best accomplish the agency’s goals. The NASA RCN is designed to be more dynamic and responsive than the NSF RCN model as the goals and priority of the agency changes. The membership in the NASA RCNs will not require proposals detailing how they will coordinate the community. All of the members of the NASA RCN are funded independently of their participation in the RCN. PI co-leads can request funding to offset the administrative burden associated with RCN leadership. Astrobiology RCN co-leads and steering committees will determine how to coordinate activities within their network. Separate funding is available to support these activities as needed.

How and why was NExSS formed?


In the past decade, NASA’s Kepler mission has revealed that most stars host planets, many of them are Earth-sized. From Kepler, observations indicate that the Milky Way may be home to billions of Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone of their host stars. With this knowledge, the possibility of finding life beyond Earth looms larger on the horizon. NExSS grew from this realization and the recognition that a synthesized approach that draws on expertise from many fields is required to maximize the information from these discoveries and accelerate future progress. The key to understanding exoplanet habitability is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “systems science” approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets. NExSS provides framework for a collaboration among the four science communities supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate: Earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists, and astrophysicists.

How many Astrobiology Research Coordination Networks will be established?


A total of five Astrobiology RCN will be formed initially. All will be responsive to future NASA mission goals of understanding the emergence and early evolution of life and searching for life in and beyond our solar system. These RCNs are inherently crosscutting and focus on interdisciplinary science questions. The initial group of Astrobiology RCNs is:

The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS)


The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), which is focused on the study and characterization of planets with the greatest potential for signs of life, was established as an experimental Research Coordination Network (RCN) aimed at encouraging and sustaining interdisciplinary, cross-cutting research. NExSS coordinates the new, interdisciplinary field of exoplanet research that involves the expertise of all four of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD)’s Divisions (Astrophysics, Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science). Members of NExSS investigate the diversity of exoplanets and learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life.

The Network for Life Detection (NfoLD)


Members of the Network for Life Detection (NfoLD) will investigate life detection research, including biosignature creation and preservation, as well as related technology development. This RCN will support the next step in PSD’s strategy for life detection in building and managing the Ladder of Life Detection and will be responsive to the Congressionally mandated 2018 NAS study on NASA’s strategy in the search for life. This network has the potential to expand to include research funded by the Science Mission Directorate (SMD)’s Earth Science as well as the NSF Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE).

Prebiotic Chemistry and the Early Earth


Members of this RCN will Investigate chemical processes under the conditions on the Early Earth and the formation of basic proto/biological molecules and pathways, leading to the emergence of systems harboring the potential for life. The Prebiotic Chemistry and the Early Earth RCN has the potential to expand to include research funded by the Science Mission Directorate (SMD)’s Astrophysics, and Earth Science. Additionally, this RCN will build on the NASA Astrobiology Program’s efforts with NSF that have led to the development of the Ideas Lab and the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE).

Ocean Worlds (Habitable Worlds)


Members of this RCN will investigate the diversity of potentially habitable other worlds in our Solar System, with a focus on ocean worlds, and learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. This RCN will be responsive to the Congressional mandate to establish an Ocean Worlds program. The Ocean Worlds RCN has the potential to expand to include research funded by all four of Science Mission Directorate (SMD)’s Divisions (Astrophysics, Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science) and similar work at other agencies (NSF Office of Polar Programs (OPP) and Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)).

From Early Cells to Multicellularity


Members of this RCN will investigate the earliest biological processes and the evolution of life on Earth into more complex organisms up to the advent of multicellularity. The From Early Cells to Multicellularity RCN has the potential to expand to include research funded across governmental agencies, including NIH and DOE. Additionally, this RCN will build on the NASA Astrobiology Program’s efforts with NSF that have led to the development of the Ideas Lab.

Initial group of NASA Astrobiology RCNs.
Initial group of NASA Astrobiology RCNs.Image credit: NASA Astrobiology.

For each RCN, the “AB strategy” number(s) indicates which chapter(s) of the 2015 Astrobiology Strategy the RCN research would be most responsive to. Under “R&A”, program acronyms with no special formatting are entirely within PSD; bold program acronyms are specific cross-divisional programs or those in other divisions entirely, and bold italics are other divisions that may contribute broadly to the RCN research teams.

How will the Astrobiology RCNs interact internally and with each other?


Once each RCN has been established, co-leads will meet regularly as needed with Astrobiology Program staff. The steering committee of each RCN will meet regularly to develop and implement the RCN coordination strategy. Activities proposed by the RCNs will engage an even broader spectrum of the Astrobiology community.

Cross-fertilization between RCNs will be achieved by having PIs or team members elect to participate in multiple RCNs. Additionally, co-leads between the RCNs will meet virtually semi-annually, and the members of all steering committees will meet every year, with every other year’s meeting occurring in conjunction with AbSciCon.

What is the timeline of the transition between the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Research Coordination Networks?


The currently funded CAN 7 and CAN 8 NAI teams will remain as members of the NAI as it winds down at the end of December 2019, when the CAN 7 teams were scheduled to end. At the same time, as the new RCNs are brought on-line by early 2020, NAI teams will be incorporated into the relevant networks from their outset. At the end of 2019, the CAN 8 teams will remain in their roles in the RCNs.

PSD is targeting the end of the second quarter of 2019 for the release of the first ICAR solicitation, with proposals targeted to be due in the fourth quarter, and selection of up to 5 teams announced in early 2020. All selected teams would become members of one or more relevant RCNs. ICAR calls will occur on the order of every two years, and will stagger RCN topics that will be included.

The four new RCNs are targeted to be kicked off in the following order: NfoLD, Prebiotic Chemistry and the Early Earth, Ocean Worlds (Habitable Worlds), From Early Cells to Multicellularity. PSD expects that all five RCNs will be stood up in time for the selected teams from the first ICAR solicitation to join as members.

How do I become a part of an Astrobiology Research Coordination Network?


Researchers may elect to become a member of one or more RCNs once they have received funding for a relevant project. If you are currently funded by NASA for research related to any of the topics covered by any of the active RCNs (currently NExSS), you can contact your Program Officer to indicate your interest. In the future, Principal Investigators (PIs) proposing to relevant programs will be able to select, as part of their proposal package, which of the five Astrobiology RCNs they would be interested in joining if selected for funding through Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitations.

Who manages each Research Coordination Network?


Each RCN is self-governing and managed by three to four funded Principal Investigators (co-leads) in that network. NASA Astrobiology Program staff, along with representatives of relevant research elements and SMD Divisions, select the RCN co-leads from the PIs whose research has been funded in the relevant area and who have elected to be a member of the RCN. RCN co-leads are responsible for organizing meetings of all other self-elected members of the RCN to meet the objectives that have been set out for each RCN. Co-leads manage the steering committee and report to Astrobiology Program staff regularly on the status and accomplishments of the group. PIs can request funding to offset the administrative burden associated with RCN leadership. In addition to the co-leads, the management of each RCN will include a larger steering committee whose membership is comprised all Principal Investigators of awards who have elected to be part of the RCN.

How are Research Coordination Network co-leads selected?


Once the RCNs are established, NASA Astrobiology Program staff, along with representatives of relevant research elements and SMD Divisions, will select the RCN co-leads nominated (or self-nominated) from within the science community whose research has been funded in that area and who have elected to be a member of the RCN. Normally, the co-leads manage the RCN for the length of the performance period of their NASA award (3-5 years). At the end of a co-lead’s term, a new co-lead will be selected by the same process.

How is the Research Coordination Network steering committee selected?


In addition to the co-leads, the management of each RCN includes a larger steering committee whose membership will be comprised of the PIs of each award who elected to be part of the RCN. Each member of the RCN is funded by awards received independently of the network.

Where does funding for Research Coordination Networks come from?


Funding for the research performed by individual members of the RCN comes from awards received independently of the network. These awards will be granted through Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitations, which currently include programs such as Exobiology and Habitable Worlds, but that will be expanded to different programs as new RCNs come online. Funding for the administration of the RCNs is provided by the Planetary Science Division.

Can I be part of an RCN if I do not have a NASA-funded award?


Initially, you will not be eligible to be one of the leads or a member of the steering committee, but all researchers in relevant fields are welcome and encouraged to be a part of the community-based activities (workshops, symposia, etc.) that are one of the main mechanisms by which the RCNs are acting to bring the community together. For example, past workshops initiated by NExSS, but that include the broader exoplanet research include Upstairs Downstairs, Exoplanets Biosignatures, Habitable Worlds, and Exoplanetary Space Weather.

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