NASA decadal surveys call for cosmic overhaul

The Planetary Science Decadal Survey now aims to build on efforts of previous decades, the National Academies report states

NASA scientists are calling for a revamp of the space agency’s billion-dollar strategy for searching for signs of life on other planets.

In a report published by the National Academies on Thursday, the planetary science community said it needed to better align itself with the US’s overarching science strategy for decades to come.

The Planetary Science Decadal Survey now aims to build on NASA’s efforts to search for signs of life on other planets and put an end to the jargon used to describe it in the 1990s. It hopes to secure more long-term funding and keep pace with international efforts, particularly in Europe.

In more detail than ever before, scientists describe the current state of NASA’s flagship programme as “an oft-ignored, and only occasionally trumpeted, global mission with multiple success stories to promote it and improve public understanding”.

“This is the loudest and clearest call for better alignment with NASA’s science goals coming out of NASA in 30 years,” John Grotzinger, a planetary scientist at Caltech, told the Guardian. “Science is more and more recognised as an interdisciplinary process.”

Grotzinger argued for a new interpretation of what NASA’s star-hunting Kepler mission was doing on Earth by leading to an expansion of the boundaries of habitable zones on our own planet.

“Under Obama, and continuing under Trump, we’ve seen more an expansion of the universe, and scientists say it’s doing the same thing for us,” he said. “The question is whether we can use this expansion to expand our understanding and appreciation.”

The effort would seek to better align the scientists’ “global” approach to planetary sciences with their expectation that the technology has “overcome many of the barriers” that stood in the way of identifying life, Grotzinger said. The decadal survey is mostly concerned with identifying priorities within the 20 years or more ahead, rather than finding ways to achieve those goals in the coming decades.

James Green, the director of Nasa’s planetary science division, said: “This decadal survey shows the urgent need for the prioritisation of planetary science across the entire space agency.”

The report could lead to ways in which space operations, such as support for science missions, could be aligned with the national science strategy, said Richard Hoover, a planetary scientist at Stanford.

“There are synergies in science and space operations that are not readily apparent,” Hoover said. “The strategy and the science intersect many times.”

He acknowledged that the new document could prove controversial. Many scientists believe that far more experimental techniques and fundamental ground-breaking findings were yielded in the 1970s, when large-scale planetary missions – such as the Mariner 2, Lick, Viking and Surveyor projects – were taken on.

In this light, many researchers fear that the Space Age has come to an end.

“You need to see much more of a cultural shift going in towards the establishment of serious planetary science,” Michael Mumma, a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told the Guardian.

“The idea that Mars and other bodies have the potential to be habitable is not a possibility. The chances that life could arise there are very slim.”

James Head, professor of planetary science at Cardiff University, believes scientists may fail to innovate if the funding model remains the same as it has been since 2008.

“The challenge will be for scientists to feel as if they are being seen as part of the bigger community and that the approach is one which values their work and rewards good research,” he said.

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