SPIE maintains stride; astrobiology picks up pace
SAN DIEGO, CA--This year`s 43rd annual meeting of SPIE--the International Society for Optical Engineering ran pretty much as expected, according to director of corporate services Scott Walker. By the middle of the meeting week, July 19 to 24, Walker was estimating a total attendance of 5500. That number was about 600 down from the 6100 mark of the previous year. But, Walker said, that was no surprise. Several SPIE astronomy conferences had already been held last May in Kona, HI, he explained, and were therefore absent from the annual meeting in San Diego. The Kona meeting was highly successful, Walker said, with only 900 people expected but about 1800 actually attending. An astrobiology plenary session, describing a new institute at NASA, along with three days of related technical papers helped to maintain an astronomy focus in the San Diego meeting, however.
The total number of papers at the San Diego meeting had dropped to 2300 from 2600 the previous year. And there were about 3100 technical attendees of whom 40% were from outside the USA, he said. The number of companies in the exposition did not decrease, however, and was up slightly over last year to 260. By mid-week, Walker was projecting a total walk-in exposition attendance of about 1200. With no special astronomy meetings scheduled for next year, Walker expects attendance to climb back up to just more than 6000 in 1999, when the meeting will be held in Denver, CO, in accordance with the usual three-year rotation of two years in San Diego and one in Denver.
Unlike the Photonics East and Photonics West meetings, in which a major goal is to increase attendance and broaden participation, the focus for the annual SPIE meeting is to maintain a steady-state focus on the leading edge of optical instrumentation, Walker said. Typical attendees tend to represent groups with focused research interests, such as academic institutions, government laboratories, and aerospace contractors, he added. Attendance on the exhibit floor does not rival the high traffic meetings, but people who go to the exhibits generally know beforehand what they are looking for to further their particular research. While the Photonics East and West meetings highlight instrumentation and technology with immediate applications, the focus at the annual SPIE meeting is on applications that are about five years out, he said.
Astrobiology gets attention
According to some speakers at this year`s meeting, at least five years of fundamental research will probably be required before the field of astrobiology--covered extensively in this year`s meeting during three days of technical presentations and the plenary session--will really come into its own. A primary focus in the plenary session was the need for new optical instrumentation specifically designed to aid the search for extraterrestrial life. Speakers included G. Scott Hubbard, interim director of the new astrobiology institute at the NASA Ames Research Center (Moffet Field, CA); Kenneth Nealson, who is establishing an astrobiology group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, CA); and David McKay, who directs the astrobiology group at the Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX).
All of the conference speakers emphasized the need for multidisciplinary participation, and Hubbard described current efforts at NASA toward developing an astrobiology roadmap. Fifty-three proposals were submitted to NASA for the new institute and 11 were accepted, Hubbard said. But participation is likely to expand as funding increases and as the organizational focus becomes more fully developed and more broadly communicated.
"The funding is about $9 million for 1999 and is forecast to go up to about $20 million a year. [And] our administrator has made public statements that if this all works out, maybe it will go to $100 million a year," Hubbard said. "I don`t think we are going to spend that until we see an effect, but I think the potential is there in this field to grow significantly."