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What Is Astrobiology?

Astrobiology, the latest buzzword in government and educational circles, is the broad study of life in space. It largely replaces the earlier term Bioastronomy, although the International Astronomical Union still has a Bioastronomy Commission, and conducts periodic Bioastronomy Conferences. For a time, the two terms were used interchangeably, and in fact there is little distinction today between bioastronomy and astrobiology research.

Astrobiology is an emerging interdisciplinary field that deals with all aspects of life in the universe: its origin, evolution, distribution and future. As such, it encompasses SETI, the search for electromagnetic emissions from other technological civilizations in the cosmos. Although much broader in scope than SETI, astrobiology grew out of the SETI discipline.

For a brief time, SETI science was a respectable, government-sponsored endeavor in the US. When the term SETI fell into disfavor, NASA renamed their ongoing SETI effort HRMS, for High-Resolution Microwave Survey. But the program did not survive the name change, as HRMS, like SETI, was still a four letter word. In 1993, Congress passed legislation cancelling the NASA SETI program, and prohibiting the expenditure of government funds on SETI science.

Shortly after the cancellation of HRMS, NASA established its Astrobiology Institute, to seek (through different means) to answer some of the very questions which SETI addresses. The focus shifted from communications technology to the emergence of life: the search for habitable planets, organic molecules in space, fossil evidence in meteorite fragments, and the exploration of nearby planets for signs of primitive biological activity, present or past.

But SETI activity did not die with the emergence of government-funded astrobiology activities. The pursuit of traditional radio SETI, as well as newly-accepted Optical SETI, was continued by a number of nonprofit organizations around the world, including the grass-roots SETI League, and the prestigious SETI Institute which grew out of the remnants of the late NASA SETI office.

Recently, SETI has become accepted as a valid sub-discipline within the broader field of astrobiology, and NASA grants have begun once more to flow to the SETI Institute and other organizations, through the auspices of NASA's Astrobiology Institute.

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