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Title    : Scientists call for study of life's origins in space
Author : The Boston Globe
Date    :


A panel of elite scientists Wednesday told vice president Al Gore that U.S.
space research should be directed toward answering questions about our

How the universe, stars, planets and life itself came into being, and whether
life may be widespread in the universe. But they said no great new research
program is needed, just incremental beefing up of projects already in the

Among areas that should get increased funding and attention, the group said,
are the ongoing exploration of Mars by robotic craft, the collection of
meteorites in Antarctica in hopes of finding more that came from Mars, and
the study of the most exotic forms of microbial life on Earth.

Gore had called for the briefing as a prelude to a planned space summit to be
held early next year, whose goal is to forge national policy on how to follow
up on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's August announcement
of signs of life in a rock from Mars. Clinton had called for the summit on
the day of that announcement.

Scientific luminaries including astronomer Carl Sagan, paleontologist Stephen
Jay Gould and NASA chief Daniel Goldin, along with religious leaders and
others, briefed Gore on recent scientific findings and on upcoming projects
that could help to shed light on how life began, whether life truly did get a
start on Mars and whether it might still be there.

At a preliminary workshop in October, a panel of scientists decided that the
focus of present space research should be the question of origins, said panel
co-chairman Claude Canizares, head of the aeronautics and astronautics
department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The work in recent years has all been converging on a common theme of
origins, from the origins of the universe to the origins of life," Canizares
said before the briefing.

In a white paper prepared for Wednesday's session, the panel wrote that
"discoveries in just the past few years provide the first scientific basis
for believing that life may be widespread in the universe, in our solar
system and beyond."

Looking to the future, the paper said that "for the first time in history, we
have achieved the level of understanding and technical capability necessary
to fill in the 'missing links' along the chain of origins by exploring on the
Earth and outward in space, in the present and backward in time. ... Answers
to these questions are within reach."

But answering these questions will not require a major new commitment
comparable to the canceled Superconducting Supercollider or the human genome
project, Canizares said.

Rather, it requires pushing ahead with projects such as a new wave of robotic
missions to Mars, ongoing and planned telescopic searches for planets around
other stars, and continued efforts on Earth to explore the kinds of life
found in the most extreme environments, such as volcanic hot springs, frozen
lakes, and even rock formations deep underground.

Canizares said he is encouraged about the prospects for continuation and
expansion of such research, especially in light of President Clinton's
personal call for the summit meeting and Gore's decision to hold Wednesday's

"This is not something he had to do," Canizares said. Among the panelists at
the session, "everyone was really impressed with the vice president" and his
understanding of the often complex scientific issues involved, he said.

A "balanced and diversified" research program aimed at understanding the
origins of life on Earth, confirming whether life exists or has existed on
Mars, finding out whether water exists on moons of Jupiter where life might
also have arisen, and expanding the search for other planets "will yield a
steady return of significant findings and, inevitably, major surprises" over
the next 15 years, the panel said.

The results of such a research program, they said, "could well have as
profound an effect on human thought as the Copernican and Darwinian


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