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The Search for Our Mysterious Origins: The New York Center for Astrobiology

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Bruggeman Conference Room
Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies

Monday, November 24, 2008


Good evening.

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Good morning. Thank you for coming.

I would like to thank our partners in government and academia who are here with us this morning, and, especially, the students who are presenting their research. We greatly appreciate your participation and involvement.

Today, we launch the New York Center for Astrobiology, a Center that is undertaking to answer two of humankind's most basic questions — how did life begin? And, does life exist elsewhere in the universe?

NASA space missions and observatories have acquired a wealth of data on the structure and chemical composition of the cosmos, from planets in our solar system to stars and galaxies millions of light-years away. Our planet, and its biosphere, can no longer be considered in isolation, because we are a part of the universe that gave birth to it — and to us.

The Center will analyze the data from these missions to recreate the processes that set the stage for life — from elements to enzymes, from cosmic dust, to planetesimals, to planets. The task creates a new kind of space explorer, giving scientists and students an unprecedented opportunity to examine and address the deepest questions of our origins without ever leaving Earth.

The Center will engage experts in astrophysics, physical and mathematical modeling, geology, chemistry, and biochemistry to recreate the complex pathways that transform basic elements into complex organic molecules that form the origin of life as we know it on Earth, and beyond. Their work will enable NASA mission planners to optimize the design of the future Mars Sample Return mission in its quest to collect mineral biomarkers in Martian soil.

Another component will investigate the universality of chemical pathways that lead to complex organic molecules in protoplanetary disks. Solar-system formation debris (comets, asteroids, meteorites) contain life-relevant molecules, such as amino acids, that fall to Earth all the time. By investigating the processes that created these molecules, and the rates at which they were delivered at earlier times, researchers not only will explore their probable role in the origin of life on Earth, but, also, test their universality as pathways to life in other solar systems.

Center researchers and students will use sophisticated modeling, chemical and geologic analysis, and complex mathematics to understand the chemical, physical, and geologic conditions that existed here on Earth when life began.

The new Center grows out of the historic Rensselaer strength in interdisciplinary science, and our leadership role in space exploration. Former Rensselaer President, and alumnus, George M. Low, was integral in making the first steps in space possible. As manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, Dr. Low oversaw the redesign and testing of the Apollo Command and Service Module, and the Lunar Module. Under his direction, NASA flew eight Apollo missions with great success, including Apollo 8, the first manned lunar orbital flight in December 1968, and Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing in July 1969. Rensselaer alumni, John L. Swigert Jr. '65, became an Apollo astronaut just months after his graduation, and Richard A. Mastracchio '87 is still an active NASA Astronaut who has logged more than 24 days in space as part of the STS-106 Atlantis and STS-118 Endeavour crews. The bravery and innovation of these alumni have paved the way for future generations of Rensselaer graduates to pursue careers in the science and discovery of deep space.

Today, with the support of a $7.5 million, 5-year grant from NASA, Rensselaer extends its space exploration legacy as it creates the New York Center for Astrobiology, joining with other universities as a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Led by Professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy Douglas Whittet, the interdisciplinary Center will include scientists and students from diverse research backgrounds, and researchers from top universities around the country, including our two New York partners with us today — the University at Albany and Syracuse University.

The Center stands on the leading edge of space science. Rensselaer and its partners are poised to take the lead in developing the scientific foundation that could someday help mankind take another “giant leap,” envisioned by Neil Armstrong, in our search for our mysterious origins, and answer the questions about the possibility of distant neighbors in the universe.

I look forward to seeing what we will discover.

Now, it gives me great pleasure to welcome U.S. Representative-Elect Paul Tonko back to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Paul Tonko has been a long-time supporter of Rensselaer — as a former New York State Assembly Member, and former President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. We share a deep interest in energy policy issues.

We invited Representative-Elect Tonko, today, to give him a first look at all of the exciting Federally funded research which is taking place at Rensselaer. More than 56 percent of the sponsored research at Rensselaer is supported by Federal funding.

A long-time concern, which I know Representative-Elect Tonko shares, is the decline of federal investment in research agencies such as NASA, a decline that deprives the United States of discovery and innovation, and the industries that they ultimately foster.

I know that Representative-Elect Tonko has just returned from a week-long, new member orientation in Washington, and I welcome him to make a few remarks as he turns this next page in his distinguished public service career.

Please join me in welcoming Representative-Elect Paul Tonko.


Source citations are available from Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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