Carl Sagan Center FAQ


Carl Sagan Center Frequently Asked Questions

Why is this research group within the SETI Institute called the Carl Sagan Center?

The multi-disciplinary research group now called the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe within the SETI Institute is dedicated to exploring the broad question of life. This includes characterizing life’s limits, understanding the structure and evolution of solar systems and galaxies and looking for the fingerprints of life in whatever form it may take in our own solar system and throughout the universe. In essence, this is the pursuit of the answer to humankind’s most basic question, “Are we alone?” This question was the prime motivating force for Carl Sagan’s career and it is fitting that his legacy be continued in a focused, stable, dedicated manner by a group of his peers.

Who was Carl Sagan?

Carl Sagan was a world-renowned astronomer, planetary scientist and popularizer of science who inspired a generation of young people through his well-known Cosmos television series. He was on the SETI Institute Board of Trustees at the time of his death.

What is Astrobiology?

Astrobiology is the multi-disciplinary science that researches the broad question of life in the universe. The field encompasses a multitude of national and international research centers, including the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), of which the SETI Institute (SI) is a lead member. The NAI is headquartered at NASA Ames Research Center. Many U.S. universities offer courses in astrobiology and several offer degrees in the field. International institutions include the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain and the Centre for astrobiology at MacQuarie University in Sydney, Australia.

Why are you establishing the Carl Sagan Center?

The SETI Institute and the Carl Sagan Center within the Institute are making a long-term commitment to pursue the multi-disciplinary approach to the study of life in the universe in a stable and uninterrupted manner. Astrobiology was established as a discipline within NASA more than 10 years ago. Despite tremendous advances and great successes ranging from the detection of extrasolar planets to ever-improved characterization of the limits of life and improved models of galaxies, funding for this basic research has dwindled and is now severely threatened. Government funding of research is continually subject to fluctuations and instabilities based on changing priorities of administrations, at both the national and agency levels. Buffering these changes requires the pursuit of private funding to complement Federal grant resources.

Why are you doing this now?

Funding for astrobiology within NASA is targeted for a 50-percent cut in the Fiscal Year 2007 NASA budget. Such draconian cuts threaten not only the NASA Astrobiology Institute, of which the SETI Institute is a member, but all astrobiology research dependent on government funding. To assure the survival of this important field of endeavor, private, independent funding now must be sought.

How much money are you talking about for fundraising?

CSC scientists currently receive about $7 million annually in federal resources, mostly from NASA.  We are still working on the private fundraising plan, but anticipate seeking $4 million to $6 million over the next three years.

Why should one support the Carl Sagan Center?

There are five important reasons:

1) Compelling science: Sagan Center science addresses humankind's most fundamental question: Are we alone?

2) United States leadership in astrobiology: The proposed 50-percent cut in NASA astrobiology funding puts a decade of science leadership in this field at risk.

3) Technology Return on Investment: CSC research may likely point to new avenues for pharmaceuticals by studying extremophiles. Applications of nanotechnology may lead to new companies being formed. Such research helps drive new products and services in the market place.

4) International cooperation: NASA's proposed 50 percent cut comes at a time when our nation’s investment has induced governments in Australia, Spain, the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere to put significant resources into astrobiology. By NASA's actions, a world science community may radically shrink as other governments also back away, or the United States will lose out to foreign competition.

5) Protecting our home planet: CSC researchers are engaged in a range of research that can pay huge benefits to the inhabitants of the Earth.  Three examples are:

•Global warming (global climate change) is real but the impact on our planet is highly unpredictable. The research by our principal investigators will contribute significantly to the models and knowledge that will allow us to better forecast the future.

•One of our scientists has achieved what appears to be a breakthrough in understanding the physics of earthquakes. If proven correct, this discovery will have a profound impact on saving lives and property.

•Another researcher has devoted much of his career to the study of small bodies such as asteroids and comets.  Understanding the orbits of those small bodies which are classed as Near Earth Objects can help forecast potential future catastrophes

Who will benefit from the Carl Sagan Center?

Ultimately, all humankind will benefit from furthering our understanding of the nature, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. In the immediate future however, the success of the Carl Sagan Center will ensure that astrobiology continues to thrive. Nearly 50 scientists, many award winning and all highly respected in their various fields, will be able to continue their research, adding to the store of human knowledge. The important work of training the next generation of scientists will continue without interruption, and the South Bay will retain the intellectual capital represented by the CSC scientists.

How big is the Center?

The Carl Sagan Center has nearly 50 principal investigators and scientists, as many as a dozen graduate students depending on yearly cycles, three active on-site research laboratories and a small management team.

Is the Sagan Center a physical place or building?

We are dedicating a wing of our building to the Carl Sagan Center.  There will be a plaque unveiled with a CSC logo that will be placed in this area.

Who's in charge of the Sagan Center? Is it a separate entity from the SETI Institute?

The Center will be an element of the Institute (the legal corporation), and have its own logo.  As Sagan Chair, Scott Hubbard will provide strategic direction, while the day-to-day administrator will be Frank Drake.

What is new about the Carl Sagan Center? Is this a major change for the SETI Institute?

The SETI Institute is best known for its radio astronomy program, searching for possible signals of technology from extraterrestrial radio sources. But since its establishment 22 years ago, the Institute also has had a growing number of scientists looking into all aspects of the broader question of life of any kind, intelligent or otherwise, in the universe. In this regard, the Sagan Center is continuing an established tradition. The novel elements are twofold: The dedication of the new Carl Sagan Center is a firm commitment to the pursuit of the broadest multi-disciplinary approach to the study of life in the universe. Secondly, in the face of threatened funding cuts that will decimate important, ongoing research programs, the Carl Sagan Center will actively seek new sources of stable, independent funding to ensure the longevity of the work. 

What is the difference between the Carl Sagan Center and SETI?

Both the CSC and the SETI groups of scientists investigate life in the universe. But the SETI group concentrates on looking for the signals of intelligent life and technology while the CSC group looks at the full spectrum of life by studying its origins, evolution and distribution in the universe.

What kind of science is being done?

The Sagan Center science team includes specialists in a far-reaching set of disciplines, including geology and all its sub-specialties such as paleogeology, planetary geology, geochemistry, geophysics and others; biology and associated specialties such as microbiology, paleobiology, biochemistry and biophysics; and the fields of astronomy, chemistry, physics, spectroscopy, materials science, computer science, robotics and more. The common thread of the research is the study of life: how it arose, how it has developed and how we might discover its signatures elsewhere. Sagan Center principal investigators include theorists looking at the structure of solar systems, galaxies and the universe as well as theorists looking at fundamental biology. The Sagan Center has three in-house laboratories where studies range from instrument development to extremophile research -- the investigation of organisms that live in extreme conditions such as very low temperatures, very high temperatures, high salt, high radiation and high pressure. More than a third of the CSC researchers spend time in field research environments such as the Atacama Desert high in the Bolivian Andes, an environment considered analogous to Mars due to similar geology, low temperatures, high radiation and more. Other research sites above the Arctic Circle include Axel Heiberg, Ellesmere  & Devon Islands, also with similarities to the environment on Mars.

What kind of science will be done?

Future plans include an extra-terrestrial organics analysis laboratory for in-depth study of organics such as those brought to planets by comets and those forged in what is often thought of as “the vastness of space” -- the interstellar medium. Another effort will include a pilot study, followed by development of a new laboratory in combinatorial prebiotic chemistry -- the chemistry of the early Earth, including self-organized systems that are likely the precursors of life as we know it. Computation is a third area deserving increased resources. Recent increases in computing power have created opportunities for advancement in modeling of everything from the evolution of metabolic systems to the dynamics of protocells, the simple self-organizing systems that are the precursors to living systems. In addition, we are actively seeking funding to ensure that current successful programs such as the Haughton Mars Project, Licancabur expeditions and other Arctic and Antarctic field research efforts continue uninterrupted. A strategic planning effort has shown that future needs include the establishment of an internal research and development fund, more endowed chairs and an extra-terrestrial organics analysis lab.

What laboratory research is being done on site?

Four laboratories are currently active. One is a wet lab studying halophiles, or salt-loving bacteria, a likely candidate for both early life on earth and possibly extinct or even extant life on Mars.  Another is an instrument laboratory developing small, field-deployable spectrometers focused on Raman spectroscopy. The third lab utilizes spectral analysis of rock and minerals in a Mars-like environment to understand how future Mars missions may detect various signatures.  Finally, the SETI group operates a signal analysis laboratory to develop advanced techniques of signal processing.

What are your plans for the near future? Looking forward?

In our present facility, the CSC has three working laboratories, one of which is complete and engaged in an active research program, one of which is ramping up to a full research program and one of which is in the early stages of development. Our immediate emphasis is on furthering the work in these laboratories. In addition, we are actively seeking funding to ensure that current successful programs such as the Haughton Mars Project, Licancabur expeditions and other Arctic and Antarctic field research efforts continue uninterrupted. An ongoing strategic planning effort has shown that future needs include the establishment of an internal R&D fund, more endowed chairs, and an extraterrestrial organics analysis lab.

Who are the CSC scientists?

The approximately 50 CSC scientists are from a wide diversity of mainstream science disciplines and are all highly respected individuals in their fields. They all hold Ph.D’s and come from the country’s most prestigious universities. This large cadre of scientists is comparable in quantity and quality to major research Universities engaged in astrobiology such as the University of Colorado, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, UCLA and UC Berkeley. Nearly one third of the Sagan Center scientists are younger than 40 and bring energy, enthusiasm and open-mindedness to their work. They are all multi-disciplinary in their approach to science and connected by their common dedication to advancing our understanding of the genesis, distribution and evolution of life in the universe. They are widely published in the country’s most respected peer review journals and represent significant breadth and depth of talent.

What is the current budget and funding for the Institute?

The current total annual budget for the Institute is roughly $14 million. Of this, the largest portion is $7 million that supports the Carl Sagan Center scientists. Approximately $6 million is for SETI research scientists, and the remainder is for the Education and Public Outreach Center.

Where does the funding come from?

Sagan Center scientists write peer-reviewed grant applications for funding, much of which comes from NASA under the Exobiology Grant program, the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) program and the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program. The budgets of these programs are threatened with a 50-percent cut for Fiscal Year 2007. The SETI search is funded by private donations. Many Education and Public Outreach funds come from the Institute’s work on NASA missions, especially the Kepler planet search mission and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

What kind of funding is required for the Center to be successful?

To maintain the current level of research within the CSC and grow into new areas the Center has a goal of raising $4 million to $6 million over the next 3 years from a variety of sources, including new collaborations and private philanthropy.

What is the relationship between ongoing private sector fundraising for the Allen Telescope Array and fundraising for the Carl Sagan Center?

Private-sector fundraising for the Carl Sagan Center represents a new effort that will complement rather than compete with the SETI Institute’s traditional fundraising for SETI research. Over the past dozen years, the SETI Institute has raised over $70 million to search for signals of technology from extraterrestrial sources. Such efforts led to the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) project. The initial research and development funding for the ATA came from Paul Allen of Microsoft, and so the facility bears his name. Development of the array, including populating the facility with roughly 350 state-of-the-art radio telescopes, will require ongoing private-sector fundraising. Due to changes in federal science budgets and priorities, CSC science can only proceed uninterrupted with a concerted effort to raise private-sector funds. This new fundraising effort will complement new collaborations and renewed efforts to gain access to available government funding. The two private-sector fundraising efforts will proceed side by side.  Traditional donors may want to continue to direct funds toward the ATA. New donors may be attracted to the broad scope of CSC science. Some donors may desire to fund the fullest possible range of studies. The SETI Institute and the Carl Sagan Center intend to accommodate all of these desires.

What is the connection between the CSC and NASA?

The current connection is very close between CSC scientists and NASA, particularly NASA Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Several CSC PI’s are co-investigators on NASA missions, including the Mars Exploration Rover twins currently investigating the Martian surface, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Kepler planet finding mission to be launched in 2008. Many other researchers rely on NASA funding to continue their research. In addition, the SETI Institute is a lead member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. CSC scientists will no doubt continue to work closely with NASA. The goal of the CSC is to create stable funding and scientific and intellectual freedom for the pursuit of the study of life in the universe.

How will Carl Sagan Center research differ from NASA research?

NASA is an Executive Branch government agency subject to political forces.  Over the past few years these forces have resulted in a re-direction of much NASA funding to the human space flight effort and a strong emphasis on Lunar exploration. The CSC, as a private research entity has the independence to pursue astrobiology and the study of life in the universe freed from such political constraints. In addition, government science funding, as we have seen, is subject to wide fluctuation on a nearly annual basis. By adding private funding to our revenue, the CSC will provide stability and a long-term commitment to the pursuit of astrobiology research.

How will Carl Sagan Center research differ from university research?

University research is primarily directed toward educating the next generation of scientists and providing projects that can be accomplished during the pursuit of a higher degree. In fact, the CSC works very closely with neighboring universities and provides significant training for graduate students. As a private, focused research entity, the CSC also will provide a home for the uninterrupted, long-term pursuit of some of humankind’s most profound and challenging questions.

What is the impact/benefit to Silicon Valley?

  1. The Carl Sagan Center represents a significant resource for its neighboring communities in jobs, potential for growth and prestige. The Sagan Center actively collaborates with nearby universities, national laboratories, NASA centers and other research institutions.