Published: May 12, 1997

More than 200 of the world’s top astronomers and planetary scientists will gather in Estes Park, Colo., from May 19 through May 23 for a NASA-supported conference probing the origins of galaxies, stars, planets and life.

Organized by the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University Wyoming, the conference will focus on the agency’s Origins Program, which was designed to answer fundamental questions about our universe. Supported by existing telescopes and spacecraft and others in various stages of development, the program is bolstered by interdisciplinary investigators probing the birth and early evolution of the major constituents of the universe: galaxies, stars, planets and life.

“This is a topic most people can relate to,” said astrophysicist Michael Shull of CU-Boulder’s department of astrophysical and planetary sciences. Shull organized the conference with University of Wyoming astronomer Charles Woodward and Harley Thronson, a University of Wyoming astronomer currently assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “I think exploring the origins of stars, galaxies, planets and life fulfills a fundamental human need,” said Shull.

The event will be held at the YMCA of the Rockies conference facility adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park. Although the conference is not open to the general public, members of the media are invited to attend all scientific sessions.

Speakers at the May 19 session on the formation and origins of galaxies include astronomer Max Pettini from Cambridge University, who recentlydiscovered dozens of distant galaxies in the throes of birth. Megan Donahue, a Space Telescope Science Institute astronomer in Baltimore and CU-Boulder alumna, will talk on distant galaxy clusters at the session.

The May 20 session on the formation of stars will include a talk by Frank Shu of the University of California at Berkeley on the pre-solar system. In addition, astronomer Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder office will talk on the Kuiper Belt, a wide band looping around the solar system that is believed to harbor comets and tiny planets left over from the solar system’s formation.

The formation and origin of stars session on May 21 will include a talk by Geoffrey Marcy, a planetary scientist from San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley. Marcy has been credited with discovering several planets outside the solar system during the past year.

The May 22 session on the origins of life will feature a talk by David McKay, a NASA-Johnson scientist and part of the scientific team that discovered possible evidence for past life on Mars in a meteorite. In addition, Christopher McKay of NASA-Ames will discuss the evolution of life in extreme terrestrial environments. Christopher McKay also is a CU-Boulder alum.

May 23, the final day of the conference, will begin with a session on searching for life outside the solar system using planetary spectroscopy. A presentation on the methods will be made by astronomer Alain Leger of the University of Paris.

The final conference event May 23 is a 10 a.m. panel discussion moderated by Shull on the philosophical implications of the search for cosmic origins. Panelists include three nationally known authors: science writer Timothy Ferris, CU-Boulder history Professor Patricia Nelson Limerick and Tom Siegfried, science editor at the Dallas Morning News.

For information on speakers and topics at NASA’s Origins Conference call Shull at (303) 492-7827 or access the Origins Conference World Wide Web site on the Internet at: