[CNI News thanks James Sutton for forwarding this article, dated September 10, 1996.]
MOUNTAIN VIEW, California, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- After reports that edged closer than ever to confirming life once existed on Mars, the NASA Ames Research Center is holding the first astrobiology workshop to address the "living universe."
David Morrison, director of space at Ames, said that recent discoveries across several disciplines have revolutionized basic ideas about life in the universe.
"Much of what comes under the umbrella of astrobiology is not new," Morrison said. "We are looking for the cross-fertilization where sciences from different disciplines can put their knowledge together and maybe bridge some differences."
The workshop, which ended Wednesday [Sept 11] at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, has brought together policy makers, astronomers, astronauts and life scientists.
The new discipline of astrobiology is defined by NASA as "the study of the living universe." The field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of the origin and distribution of life in the universe, the role of gravity in living systems, and the Earth's atmosphere and ecosystems.
The topic that most influenced discussion at the workshop was the recent finding that suggested that primitive life may have existed on Mars more than 3.6 billion years ago, and how to detect life on other planets.
The August 16 issue of the journal Science reported that scientists at the NASA Johnson Space Center and at Stanford University found several mineral features characteristic of biological activity and possible microscopic fossils of primitive, bacteria-like organisms inside an ancient Martian rock that fell to Earth as a meteorite.
Christopher McKay, a researcher with NASA's Planetary Systems Branch, said that the scientific community continues a healthy skepticism of the Mars meteorite. The discovery, however, was a huge advancement, he said.
"Until a few months ago, we'd thought we would have to search Mars for this type of evidence," McKay said. "Now we're not sure where to look on Mars."
It is not clear yet whether NASA will send astronauts or robots to Mars, and budget constraints require a strong scientific reason for sending people, said Astronaut Scott Parazynski. While robotics are cost-effective, recording specific observations will likely require trained human observers, Parazynski said.
"After the meteorite discovery we were forced to consider our uniqueness in the universe," he said. "Travel to Mars is almost within the grasp of current technology, but we have our research homework to do."
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