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  • Exploration and education at the ends of the Earth: public involvement in astrobiology field expeditions

    Paper number



    Dr. Linda Billings, NASA, United States



    The purpose of this paper is to report on communication, education, and outreach initiatives conducted in conjunction with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) field campaigns, addressing the costs and benefits of linking students, teachers, and other interested citizens with researchers in the field. These expeditions help to bridge the gap between imagination and reality for experts and non-experts alike.
    This paper will describe the ASTEP program and ASTEP field expeditions, highlight field-expedition communication/education/outreach success stories, and identify lessons learned and promising practices relating to educational programs that link scientific research environments with learning environments.
    The content of this new and original presentation, which will incorporate up-to-date information on expeditions to be conducted in 2008, should be useful to all who are interested in conducting educational programs in scientific research environments. The author plans on attending IAC 2008 in order to present this paper.
    The Astrobiology Program in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate studies the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Public interest in astrobiology is great, and advances in the field are rapid. To meet this interest, the Astrobiology Program supports the widest possible dissemination of timely and useful information about scientific discoveries, technology development, new knowledge, and greater understanding produced by its investigators, employing an approach described as strategic communication planning.
    That is, the Astrobiology Program aims to integrate communication, education, and outreach into all aspects of program planning and execution. The Program encourages all of its investigators to contribute to the ongoing endeavor of informing public audiences about Astrobiology.
    NASA’s Astrobiology Program studies the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology research addresses three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe?
    Goals of the Astrobiology Program range from determining the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the Solar System and beyond to understanding the emergence of life from cosmic and planetary precursors, the interaction of past life on Earth with its changing environment, the formation and evolution of planets, links between planetary and biological evolution, the effects of climate and geology on habitability, and life's precursors and habitats in the outer solar system. Research dedicated to fulfilling these goals is conducted on Earth and in space, with a growing number of astrobiology investigations flying on planetary exploration missions. 
    The field of astrobiology is an endeavor that brings together researchers in a broad range of disciplines including Earth and planetary science, astrophysics, heliophysics, microbiology and evolutionary biology, and cosmochemistry. Since 1995, the field of astrobiology has grown rapidly, and the pace of discovery has been brisk.
    The possibility of extraterrestrial life is now a serious scientific question. Research findings over the past decade that are relevant to this question include the controversial 1996 claim of fossil evidence for microbial life in a martian meteorite, evidence of past and perhaps even present liquid water on Mars, the likelihood of a liquid water ocean on Europa, the possibility of liquid water beneath the surface of Titan, observations of a growing number of extrasolar planets, and identification of new forms of microbial life in an ever-widening range of extreme Earth environments.
    Consequently, in the 21st century the pace of robotic planetary exploration is speeding up and scientific and public attention is increasingly focusing on astrobiology research, especially the search for signs of life on Mars and in other environments in our solar system. Thus the NASA Astrobiology Program encourages its Principal Investigators to incorporate communication, education, and public outreach initiatives in their research plans.
    The ASTEP element of the Astrobiology Program sponsors, among other activities, terrestrial field campaigns designed to further scientific research and technology development relevant to future solar system exploration missions, focusing especially on Mars and Europa. These ASTEP field expeditions aim to further biological research in terrestrial environments analogous to those found on other planets, past or present. They also aim to contribute to the development of technologies that will enable remote searches for, and identification of, life in extreme environments. 
    ASTEP field expeditions take place in remote terrestrial environments, locations typically inaccessible to “civilians”: for example, the Norwegian protectorate of Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle; the far-northern reaches of the Arctic Ocean; the dry valleys of Antarctica; deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems and other unmapped underwater environments – visually as well as scientifically interesting, and often stunning, physical environments. 
    ASTEP expeditions involve human researchers working with robotic adjuncts to do science in unfamiliar and challenging situations. Expedition teams often include both senior and student researchers. Some expeditions have even included “embedded” journalists and public affairs officers.
    Science means different things to different people in different situations, and thus public understanding of science, and science communication, are not simple things. Science can be a set of practices, a body of knowledge, a process of investigation, or a world view. In attempting to improve public understanding of science, it is useful to provide non-scientists with a window into the working world of science. 
    ASTEP expeditions provide such windows. They are virtually always intensive learning experiences for their researchers, and thus they provide good opportunities to demonstrate how science is actually done.
    With the proliferation of miniaturized and increasingly affordable digital communication technology – still and video cameras, recorders, laptop computers – connections between the remote locations of ASTEP expeditions and students, teachers, and other interested citizens around the world are easier to make. Thanks to these and other technologies, such as satellite telephones, interactive communications are also becoming easier.
    In summary, ASTEP expeditions provide rich opportunities for communication, education, and outreach. This paper will report on communication, education, and outreach activities for recent ASTEP field expeditions in the Arctic and Pacific oceans, Svalbard, and Mexico, as well as plans for upcoming expeditions to Antarctica and elsewhere, highlighting success stories, lessons learned, and promising practices. This paper will make the case that ASTEP education and outreach initiatives help to “leverage the inspirational value of space exploration and…prepare today’s students…to be actively involved in turning space exploration visions into reality.”
    Abstract document


    Manuscript document