The Planetary Society’s Search for Life Symposium

An in-person, invitation-only workshop to help guide future Planetary Society programs.

The Planetary Society works to advance three core enterprises - planetary exploration, planetary defense, and the search for life off Earth. As an independent organization that relies on input and advice of the professional space community, The Planetary Society is bringing together experts from the varying fields involved in the search for life, including life detection, life origins, habitability (within the Solar System and on exoplanets), technosignatures and SETI. We are convening the Search for Life Symposium to share information, identify key challenges, open up opportunities for collaboration, and identify an actionable agenda for The Planetary Society’s contribution to this important field.

At the in-person, invitation-only workshop, advisers will brief Planetary Society leadership on the state of the field and discuss ways for the public to potentially help the professional community through Planetary Society initiatives. After the advisory workshop, Planetary Society leaders, working with the advisers as necessary, will develop an internal report identifying strategic priorities and potential Planetary Society projects.

The in-person workshop and the follow-on strategic work has been funded by a private donor, the Halicioglu Family Foundation (HFF).

Date: February 12 and 13, 2024

Location

The workshop will take place at The Planetary Society, 60 S Los Robles Ave. Pasadena CA 91101.

Unless you booked separate accommodations, lodging will be directly across the street from The Planetary Society at the Hyatt Place Pasadena, 399 E Green St, Pasadena, CA 91101.

Invited group of advisers: Morgan Cable, Shawn Domagal-Goldman, Courtney Dressing, Jacob Haqq-Misra, Lindsay Hays, Betül Kaçar, Amy Williams, and Jason Wright, with special guest David Grinspoon.

Planetary Society participants: Jim Bell, Bruce Betts, Rich Chute, Casey Dreier, Bethany Ehlmann, Danielle Gunn, Heidi Hammel, Mat Kaplan, Jack Kiraly, Bill Nye, Rae Paoletta, Britney Schmidt, Jennifer Vaughn.

Agenda(Times in PST)

February 12, 2024

  • Noon — Casual lunch at Planetary Society HQ; Bill Nye will give a short tour of the building, during which Bill and other staff will describe examples of some of The Planetary Society’s past work.

  • 1:00 p.m. — Introductions

  • 1:30-5:30 p.m. — Short presentations by invited advisers.

This is a chance for Planetary Society staff to get to know how different disciplines approach the search for life. Each adviser will give a short presentation, answering the same questions but representing a different perspective and/or discipline:

  • Tell us how you would describe [the discipline you’re representing] to someone who knows nothing about the search for life.

  • Give us a speculative example of what might be an extraordinary discovery in this field. Give us two, if you'd like! Dream big and think beyond the limits of current tools and resources.

  • With this hypothetical discovery in mind, please offer some ideas of advances that might be necessary to enable such a discovery.

  • 6:30 p.m. — Dinner at Fleming’s Pasadena - 179 E Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91105 (0.5 miles from meeting location)

February 13, 2024

  • 8:30 a.m. — Casual breakfast at Planetary Society HQ
  • 9:00-11:30 a.m. — Small group advisory rounds

This is a speed advisory round (but not really all that speedy). Four of our expert advisers will individually move from station to station for discussions with Planetary Society program heads, as the other four experts remain together for an extended conversation with Planetary Society board members. These roles will be exchanged in a second round after a break.

  • 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. — Lunch and discussion with David Grinspoon

  • 1:30-3:00 p.m. — Moderated group discussion focused on science/technology, policy, and funding

(Break)

  • 3:30-5:00 p.m. — Moderated group discussion focused on education, messaging, and collaboration

  • 5:00 p.m. — Next steps, action items, and thank yous

  • 6:30 p.m. — Optional dinner at El Cholo Pasadena - 300 E Colorado Blvd Suite 214, Pasadena, CA 91101 (0.4 miles from meeting location)

Invited advisers

Morgan Cable
Morgan Cable Image: D Goods / JPL Studio

Morgan Cable is the Science Lead for the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) concept and Co-Deputy PI of the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) Instrument aboard the Mars 2020 (Perseverance) rover. She has worked on the Cassini Mission, is a Co-Investigator of the Dragonfly mission to Titan, and is serving multiple roles on Europa Clipper. She was recently appointed as a CIFAR Fellow for the Earth 4D: Subsurface Science and Exploration Program. She previously served as the Ocean Worlds Program Area Scientist for the Planetary Mission Formulation Office, and as supervisor of the Astrobiology and Ocean Worlds Group. Morgan’s research focuses on organic and biomarker detection, through both in situ and remote sensing techniques. She has designed receptor sites for the detection of bacterial spores, the toughest form of life, and developed novel protocols to analyze organic molecules using small, portable microfluidic sensors. Currently Dr. Cable performs laboratory experiments to study the unique organic chemistry of Titan. She and colleagues were the first to discover minerals made exclusively of organics that may exist on Titan’s surface. Morgan also conducts fieldwork in extreme environments on Earth, searching for life in places such as the Atacama Desert, ice fields at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, fumarole-generated ice caves of the Mount Meager Volcano in Canada, and lava fields of Iceland.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman
Shawn Domagal-Goldman Image: Britt Griswold

Shawn Domagal-Goldman is the Deputy Director of the Science Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In this role, he works with a team that oversees the broad portfolio of space science and science missions at NASA GSFC, spanning areas of astrophysics, Earth sciences, planetary sciences, and heliophysics. His research background is as an astrobiologist and Earth/planetary systems scientist. He has been a member of multiple interdisciplinary teams that conduct research on the standards of evidence for biosignatures and assessment of exoplanet habitability from an interdisciplinary systems science framework. Shawn has also been on several teams for mission concepts to directly image planets around other stars, including the concepts that have led to the Habitable Worlds Observatory, a concept for NASA’s next flagship astrophysics mission. His research in support of these efforts has been in the atmospheric and systems science modeling of other planets, with a focus on how to detect habitability and/or the presence of life on exoplanets.

Courtney Dressing
Courtney Dressing

Courtney Dressing is an observational astronomer focused on detecting and characterizing planetary systems orbiting nearby stars. She is an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, where she holds the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Her research uses telescopes on the ground and in space to search for planets, probe their atmospheres, measure their masses, and constrain their bulk compositions. She was a member of the Science & Technology Definition Team for the LUVOIR mission concept study and a member of the science panel on Exoplanets, Astrobiology and the Solar System for the Astro2020 Decadal Survey organized by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. She is currently co-chairing the Science, Technology, Architecture Review Team for NASA's upcoming Habitable Worlds Observatory. In recognition of her work, Courtney has been awarded the Hellman Faculty Fellowship, the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the David & Lucile Packard Fellowship, the 2020 Harvard Bok Prize, and the 2021 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society. Courtney received a PhD and AM in astronomy and astrophysics from Harvard University and an A.B. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University.

David Grinspoon
David Grinspoon Image: Andrew Ferris

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, award-winning science communicator, and prize-winning author. He is currently Senior Scientist for Astrobiology Strategy at NASA where he is working to define the agenda for the future of Astrobiology research and communication. Prior to this he was Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. His research focuses on climate evolution on Earth-like planets, potential conditions for life elsewhere in the universe, and the planetary scale impacts of human activities on Earth. He is involved with several interplanetary spacecraft missions and is currently on the science team for NASA’s DAVINCI mission which will launch to Venus in 2029. In 2013 he was appointed as the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the U.S. Library of Congress where he studied the human impact on Earth systems and organized a public symposium on the Longevity of Human Civilization. 

David has given dozens of public lectures about climate change in the Solar System. His technical papers have been published in Nature, Science, and numerous other journals, and he has given invited keynote talks at conferences around the world. Grinspoon’s popular writing has appeared in Slate, Scientific American, Natural History, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Sky & Telescope Magazine where for 15 years he wrote the “Cosmic Relief” column. His most recent book is Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, co-authored with Alan Stern. 

David's book Earth in Human Hands was named a Best Science Book of 2016 by NPR’s Science Friday and was a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. His previous book Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Nonfiction. His first book Venus Revealed: A New Look Below the Clouds of our Mysterious Twin Planet was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He lectures widely, and appears frequently as a science commentator on television, radio and podcasts, including as a frequent guest and host of StarTalk Radio. Also a musician, he leads the House Band of the Universe. David was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for Public Communication of Planetary Science by the American Astronomical Society. In 2022 he was elected as a lifetime Fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. Asteroid 22410 Grinspoon, a main-belt asteroid, is named after him.

Jacob Haqq Misra
Jacob Haqq Misra Image: Michael Fleck

Dr. Jacob Haqq Misra is a senior research investigator at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. His research focuses on understanding the conditions that allow life to survive on Earth and the possibility of detecting signatures of biology or technology on other planets. He also studies the possible futures of life in the solar system and is the author of the book Sovereign Mars: Transforming Our Values through Space Settlement.

Jacob received his Ph.D. in meteorology and astrobiology in 2010 from Penn State University. His postdoctoral research at the Rock Ethics Institute examined the science and ethics of climate geoengineering. He then co-founded the nonprofit organization Blue Marble Space, where he conducts his research and serves as the organization's Chief Operating Officer. He also holds B.S. degrees in astrophysics and computer science from the University of Minnesota in 2005 and an M.B.A. from Southern New Hampshire University in 2021. He participates in community engagement events and is periodically interviewed for science news, radio, and television. His writing has appeared in publications such as the The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Scientific American.

Lindsay Hays
Lindsay Hays Image: Ursula Tweddle

Lindsay Hays is a Program Scientist in the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. Her scientific background includes work on lipid biosignatures for mass extinction events and mass evolutionary radiation events, and photosynthetic organisms in modern hot spring environments. At NASA HQ, she is the Acting Lead Scientist for the Mars Sample Return Campaign, which seeks to bring samples collected by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover back to be analyzed in laboratories on Earth to help scientists better understand Mars and the potential for past life on the red planet. Lindsay is also the Program Scientist for the Astrobiology Program, where she is the lead for the Astrobiology Research Portfolio and Astrobiology Research Coordination Networks.

Betül Kaçar
Betül Kaçar Image: Carl Philabaum

Betül Kaçar is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she leads the Planetary Biology group, that combines evolutionary genomics with synthetic biology and paleontology to study the dynamics between life and environment. She conducts groundbreaking science at the edge of disciplinary boundaries that have improved our understanding of the ancient origins and history of life on Earth. Specifically, she pioneered innovative techniques to study the early evolution of life within a planetary context, revealing billion-year-old innovations that make our modern ecosystems possible. Her work advances our understanding of life’s origin and Earth co-evolution and uniquely shapes our search for life on other worlds. She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry at Emory University and completed her postdoctoral training in Evolutionary Biology and Molecular Paleobiology at Harvard University.

Betül received multiple awards including the NASA Early Career Fellowship, Stanley Miller Early Career Award, VWR Research Award, the Rosalind Franklin Award by the Rosalind Franklin Society, Hypothesis Fund. Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, USDA, DOE, Harvard Origins Initiative, Japanese Earth-Life Science Institute Network, John Templeton Foundation, Hoffman Foundation and Gates Ventures. In 2023, she was delivered the annual award lecture of the International Microbiology Society in London. In addition, Betül directs a NASA-funded multi-institutional research center (MUSE) focusing on life’s early evolution with emphasis on the natural selection elements over geologic time and co-leads an international research coordination network named LIFE supported by NASA, focusing on early co-evolution of life and Earth.

Betül has partnered with the UN Women Generation Equality Campaign to support education of girls and women globally. Her online lectures, including her TED 2022 talk viewed over 4 million times globally and her work was featured in NPR, BBC, MIT Technology Review, New Scientist, NOVA among others. She was featured by the Forbes Magazine in 2023 for her contributions in grassroots evolution and astrobiology education and equality. Asteroid 284919 Kaçar, discovered by astronomers using the NASA WISE space telescope, was named in her honor.

Amy Williams
Amy Williams Image: Amy Williams

Amy Williams is an astrobiologist and assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Florida. She completed her B.Sc. in Earth and Environmental Science at Furman University, M.Sc. in Earth and Planetary Science at the University of New Mexico, and PhD. in Geology at the University of California, Davis. She completed a postdoctoral research position at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center before joining the faculty of Towson University in 2015. In 2018 she moved to her current position at the University of Florida.

Amy's research focuses on the interaction between microbial life, the geochemical environment, and the rock record on Earth, and how to recognize habitable environments and potentially preserved microbial life on Mars. She has been a member of the NASA Mars Curiosity rover mission since 2009. She currently works with the SAM instrument as a lead for SAM’s TMAH wet chemistry experiment, designed to detect specific recalcitrant organic molecules in Mars’ sediments. She is also a Participating Scientist with the NASA Mars Perseverance rover science team, where she is a Long-Term Planner for the mission. She was the Campaign Science Lead for the Perseverance rover’s exploration of the Jezero delta front campaign in 2021/2022.

Amy has previously been a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow, a NASA postdoctoral research associate, and a member of the 2023-2032 Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey. She currently serves on the National Academy of Science Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science. She received the 2022/2023 UF Excellence Award for Assistant Professors and is a 2023 Scialog: Signatures of Life in the Universe Fellow. Amy also works to support Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility initiatives within and beyond the Geosciences.

Jason Wright
Jason Wright Image: Jodie Barshinger

Jason Wright is a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State who studies nearby stars and their planets, in addition to SETI. NPR commentator and astrobiologist Adam Frank has written that he “represents the tip of the spear of a new generation” of SETI researchers, having led two major SETI initiatives and written over a dozen papers on the topic in the past three years. He spent his 2016/7 sabbatical as the first Visiting Scientist at the UC Berkeley Breakthrough Listen SETI laboratory. In 2019 he was awarded the Drake Award by the SETI Institute for his work in exoplanets and SETI.

About The Planetary Society

Mission: Empowering the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration.

In 1980, Carl Sagan, Louis Friedman, and Bruce Murray founded The Planetary Society. They saw enormous public interest in space that was not reflected by government investment, as NASA’s budget was cut again and again. They established The Planetary Society to give anyone from anywhere in the world an active role in advancing space exploration.

Today, The Planetary Society continues this work, under the leadership of CEO Bill Nye, as the world’s largest and most influential non-profit space organization. The organization is registered 501(c)3 non-profit and engages a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts.

Anyone can become a member. Through advocacy, education and outreach, scientific innovation, and global collaboration, membership funds our mission to:

  • Increase discoveries in our Solar System and beyond

  • Elevate the search for life outside our planet

  • Decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid

Current Strategic Framework: Space for Everyone

More about Planetary Society programs:

Space Policy and Advocacy

The Space Policy & Advocacy program is The Planetary Society's branch that directly interacts with legislators, policymakers, and stakeholders at the federal and international levels. The Planetary Society maintains a full-time presence in Washington, D.C. and participates in the process of developing space policy by providing original analysis, releasing policy recommendations, and generating useful data for public and academic use.

The flagship event for the Space Policy & Advocacy program is the annual Day of Action, which routinely attracts over 100 space advocates from around the country to meet with their representatives in Washington to advance Society priorities.

The Planetary Society is a founding partner of the Planetary Science Congressional Caucus, the first and only Congressional member organization dedicated to the advancement of space science, planetary defense, and the search for life. The Caucus was originally founded in 2018, and was reorganized in 2023 under the leadership of Representatives Judy Chu and Don Bacon.

Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition is the premier dedicated space policy podcast. Hosted by Chief of Space Policy, Casey Dreier, SPE is a monthly podcast that seeks to discuss the history, theory, and practice of space policy. Notable guests on the podcast include Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Dr. Scott Pace, Dr. Laurie Leshin, and many more.

Science and Technology

Our Science & Technology program provides citizens with opportunities to participate in space science and technology projects, improves the quality and quantity of space science and technology projects in which citizens can participate, and provides funding to innovative new science and technology.

Shoemaker NEO Grants Grants ($5K to $15K) provide crucial observatory upgrades to highly capable amateur observers around the world to conduct follow-up, characterization, and discovery observations of near Earth asteroids to protect Earth from asteroid impact. 70 grants, >$500K total to observers from 21 countries over 27 years.

Science and Technology Empowered by the public (STEP) Grants are a recent international grants program. Competed every 2 years and awards grants of the $50 K level currently to carry out science or technology projects that match our core enterprises. Seeks projects where that level of funding can make a difference and move projects to the next level or fill a underfunded niche. Four have been awarded so far.

LightSail Program: achieved the first controlled solar sailing in a small satellite (CubeSat). By far the largest and most complex of TPS projects. Consisted of 2 missions: LightSail 1, a test mission, and LightSail 2 that demonstrated controlled solar sailing and orbited Earth from 2019 to 2022.

PlanetVac: TPS provided two grants at crucial times in the development of a new planetary surface sampling technology. Helped to move it each time to the next development phase. Now scheduled to fly on a Moan mission and the Japanese MMX Mars moon sample return mission.

Communications and Outreach

The Planetary Society's Communications and Outreach program creates accessible educational content about space exploration, helps the scientific community inform the public, and helps citizens educate each other in order to expand the public's knowledge and enthusiasm about space.

We serve an audience of over 7 million people around the world who consume our content on the web, email, podcasts, video, social media, digital community, and quarterly print magazine. We employ the best practices in digital marketing to attract supporters and build relationships to grow the number of people engaged with space.

We have expertise in creating engaging public outreach campaigns such as our Planetfests, naming contests, Messages to Earth. We're responsible for helping the public name the Magellan Venus orbiter; the Mars rovers Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity; and the asteroids Braille and Bennu. We've sent names of Planetary Society members and supporters on 20 space missions.

Global Collaboration

Discovering our place in the cosmos is a goal that the whole world can and should work together to achieve. Our global collaboration work brings together explorers from around the planet to achieve great things. Our work seeks to cultivate a worldwide movement to ensure the brightest possible future for space science and exploration.

We are 2 million+ space enthusiasts and advocates from around the world, including 50,000 passionate members from over 100 countries. Together, we are the largest independent space interest organization in the Cosmos.

We partner with companies and brands, subject matter experts, and some of the other largest global space organizations including World Space Week, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and the International Astronautical Federation. The Planetary Society's partnership programs support four goals: 1) directly achieving our mission of promoting space science and exploration; 2) elevating our brand and visibility to US and international audiences; 3) attracting new members; and 4) providing financial resources to support the organization and its mission.

Through our partnerships program, The Planetary Society is broadening our reach to kids under the age of 10. We are collaborating with a children's television studio to produce a new show titled Space Ships that will embody the mission and core enterprises of the Society. And, through a partnership with Lerner Publications Group, we’re expanding access to space-related books available in school library. In 2023 alone, The Planetary Society is publishing 9 books with Lerner.