SITE VISIT: Search for Alien Life

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Science  12 May 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5468, pp. 923
DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5468.923d

Researchers hoping to find life in space—and figure out how it got started on Earth—have spawned a whole new discipline: astrobiology. So far, the evidence for extraterrestrial life is scanty—a Mars meteorite containing what might be fossilized microbes, organic molecules sifted from interstellar dust. But two sites devoted to astrobiology exude the enthusiasm pervasive in this field, which embraces everything from the search for extrasolar planets to the study of microbes thriving in boiling volcanic vents.

Catering to students and casual visitors, NASA's main astrobiology site (astrobiology.arc.nasa.gov) offers video clips of interviews with researchers, feature stories, news releases, and an “Ask an Astrobiologist” bulletin board. A link leads to the home page for NASA's Astrobiology Institute, an 11-institution collaboration launched in 1998. The private Astrobiology Web (http://www.astrobiology.com/) aims to be “truly a starting point” for astrobiologists, says site editor Keith Cowing. His site offers Cowing's own articles, a steady stream of daily astronomy news, and pointers to Web sites ranging from NASA's Microgravity News to futuristic sites devoted to “terraforming,” or converting barren planets to support life.

Both sites also link to pages for scientific meetings, including last month's First Astrobiology Science Conference (Science, 28 April, p. 603). But neither offers much hard technical information. Perhaps that's understandable, as for the moment only Earth is known to harbor life.

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