Geology & Geophysics News

New NASA Science Head Foresees Progress in Search for Alien Life

Thomas Zurbuchen said other top goals for science and the agency include understanding and protecting life on Earth and probing fundamental aspects of the universe like dark matter and dark energy.

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With the search for extraterrestrial life being one of the highest NASA science priorities, “major breakthroughs in this problem” could occur over the next 1–2 decades, space scientist Thomas Zurbuchen said this week. The newly appointed associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate pointed to significant discoveries and advances in the search for extraterrestrial life since 1995 when astronomers discovered 51 Pegasi b, the first known planet orbiting a Sun-like star outside our solar system.

“Look how many planets we have right now, look where we found water, where we found organics. You can make a list of 10 things of that kind,” he told reporters at a get-to-know-you briefing with them Monday at NASA headquarters in Washington, D. C. “What we’re after in planetary exploration in many ways is a part of the puzzle of finding extraterrestrial life,” he said. Zurbuchen noted that a National Academy of Sciences workshop in December on searching for life across space and time also could provide valuable insights.

NASA’s science directorate, which Zurbuchen has headed since 3 October, encompasses Earth and planetary science, heliophysics, and astrophysics and comprises over 100 missions. These include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and Mars rovers. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) are among future missions. Zurbuchen succeeds Geoffrey Yoder, who served as acting associate administrator for science since the retirement in April of John Grunsfeld.

Swiss Roots

NASA is a long way from the small Swiss mountain village where Zurbuchen grew up in a family whose church rejected technology and education. His NASA position “is an extraordinary opportunity for impact in the world,” said Zurbuchen, who became a U.S. citizen 12 years ago. He noted the importance of “enlarging the space of what we know and also making that space useful to humanity.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s new associate administrator for the agency’s science mission directorate.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s new associate administrator for the agency’s science mission directorate, discussed his priorities during a 31 October briefing. Credit: Randy Showstack

Zurbuchen received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Bern in Switzerland in 1996. So far in his career, his research has spanned solar and heliospheric physics, experimental space research, space systems, and involvement with NASA missions, including the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft to Mercury and the Ulysses heliosphere mission. Most recently, Zurbuchen was a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The new associate administrator has demonstrated leadership skills that should serve him well in this new job, said William Swartz, a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Swartz told Eos about serving on a U.S. National Research Council committee chaired by Zurbuchen. According to Swartz, Zurbuchen helped ensure that all views were heard as the committee deliberated about achieving science goals with miniature satellites known as CubeSats (a keen interest of Zurbuchen). Under Zurbuchen’s leadership, “we reached consensus while not getting bogged down in arguments that ultimately could have led to gridlock,” Swartz said.

Michael Liemohn, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan and a former colleague of Zurbuchen, also spoke highly of him. “We can all get buried in the small details of our work lives, and it’s good for somebody in a leadership position to be able to occasionally call everybody to attention and remind them of the big vision and the place that you’re aiming at,” said Liemohn, editor in chief of the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics. Zurbuchen “is good at not only listening to everybody to find out what those big-ticket items should be but honing those big-picture visions into tangible goals for an organization to head towards.”

Top Priorities

Along with the search for extraterrestrial life, Zurbuchen spoke of understanding and protecting life on Earth as a top NASA science priority. Obtaining deeper insights into Earth includes tracking severe weather through instruments such as NASA’s upcoming Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), monitoring potential disruptions from space weather, and better understanding climate change. Zurbuchen also noted that the search for the fundamentals of the universe, including dark energy and dark matter, is another of NASA’s most important science goals.

Top management priorities for the new associate administrator include getting to know the science team at NASA and helping them succeed. “The team is already successful. I did not come to a whole bunch of broken glass. I walked in the door and I found a tremendously functional team,” Zurbuchen said. Other priorities he noted are focusing on the agency’s current operations and helping to make NASA a stronger organization strategically.

Navigating the Political Divide

In the political realm, NASA “has true bipartisan support,” and many political leaders see value in NASA’s mission, Zurbuchen said. “It’s easy to see how [Earth science] affects us on a day-to-day basis. The business we’re in here at NASA is taking measurements that affect our lives,” he said. “Earth science is a really important part of the portfolio, for a variety of objectives.”

He stressed the value of understanding that people may have different perspectives about issues. “Just because somebody doesn’t agree the first time we open our mouths doesn’t mean that they are stupid or we are smart or the other way around,” he said.

Entrepreneurial Bent

In his prior tenure at the University of Michigan, Zurbuchen founded the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship. Now, in his new role, he questioned whether NASA, already an innovative agency, is “forward leaning” and sufficiently innovative. “I want to learn how to create the right environment” for that while also maintaining high overall standards, he commented.

Zurbuchen pointed to CubeSats as an example of a welcome, disruptive innovation that has a unique purpose—in this case, providing more and faster data gathering over locations on our planet or elsewhere. That and related technology have proven particularly useful for Earth science and heliophysics, he noted, pointing to the CYGNSS mission scheduled to launch in December. CYGNSS will carry a constellation of eight small spacecraft.

“This kind of disruption, that’s what I’m looking for,” he said. “How can we develop, invent a new technique, how can we invent new architectures of missions that can go in and really do science that we otherwise can’t do?”

Nonetheless, NASA’s approach can’t be that “one size fits all,” he said, emphasizing that NASA’s missions and activities span a large range in terms of investments and size, from the Hubble telescope and the Earth science program to CubeSats. “The ‘many flowers bloom’ type of investment is absolutely critical for us as an agency and for humanity as a whole,” he said.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), New NASA science head foresees progress in search for alien life, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO062467. Published on 04 November 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • davidlaing

    The search for extraterrestrial life is perhaps too ambitious. We know of plenty of nearby planets within the “Goldilocks zone,”but only Earth has developed life. Why?

    Earth has a massive satellite, Moon, that interacts gravitationally with Earth’s equatorial bulge to stabilize the nutation of its rotational axis to within about a degree or so of 23.5 degrees. This means that during its orbit, Earth’s polar regions are only exposed to very weak 24/7 solar irradiation during the solstices.

    The rotational axes of Mars and Venus, on the other hand, are free to swing through large angles (Venus, in fact, is upside-down), because of the absence of a large satellite, which means that during the solstices, their polar regions have been exposed to very intense solar radiation.

    This, in turn, has led to evaporation and photodissociation, a fact that is reflected in the very high deuterium-to-hydrogen ratios of these two planets compared to Earth’s own ratio. This means that hydrogen has preferentially been lost from these planets, while the heavier deuterium has remained, a clear signal of the photodissociation of water. In other words, these planets have lost their water, while Earth hasn’t.

    The most logical inference from this is that in the absence of the gravitational effects of a massive satellite, water can not persist on a planet, and therefore life can not develop there. This constraint greatly limits the probability of finding life on other worlds.