BOULDER, Colorado - Consider it nothing short of the cosmic quest for all time: Understanding the origin, evolution, distribution, and fate of life on Earth and in the Universe.

That's a tall order...but within the sights of experts gathering here this week to take part in the 2005 Biennial Meeting of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

From the formation and evolution of habitable worlds to the origins of life, extra-solar planets, and future exploration technologies and strategies - dedicated scientists are tackling big questions in a big universe.

Unanswered questions

There has been a salvo of new findings, just within the last few years alone.

Planet detection outside our solar system is on the upswing. The Huygens robot lander plopped down on Titan, a moon of Saturn. And information continues to stream in from the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

"Everything is accelerating...and astrobiology knowledge is accelerating too," said Bruce Runnegar, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), an international research consortium with central offices located at NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. "It's a wonderful time to be alive, but it is hard to deal with because there are so many new discoveries and so much data," he told SPACE.com.

Runnegar said the field of astrobiology makes use of "multidisciplinarians" - individuals capable of cutting across and building bridges between disciplines.

NASA's visionary Moon, Mars and beyond is a major thrust, one that embraces astrobiology, Runnegar said.

"Astrobiology is important not only for those space exploration goals but also for understanding how we can take life from here elsewhere...and what we should do with humanity as we move out into space. It's central to the vision," Runnegar added.

There are unanswered questions about our place in the Universe, as well as interest in exploring new territories and new worlds, Runnegar said. "Both of those things, I think, are going to ultimately drive the exploration vision."

Scientists plugging away

The NAI is currently composed of 16 lead teams, which together represent over 700 investigators across the United States. In addition, the NAI has international partnerships with astrobiology research organizations around the world.

David Morrison, NAI's senior scientist, said astrobiology is a growing field. Some of the leading research can be tied to events like the exploration of Mars with the rovers, "but a lot of it is just individual scientists plugging away," he said.

"Most of it is not predictable," Morrison said, although planting an astrobiology science rover on Mars either in 2009 or 2011 is hopefully in the plans. Furthermore, he pointed to the Kepler Mission to be launched within the next few years. This spacecraft, for the first time, will search our galaxy for Earth-size or even smaller planets.

"I can't predict what will be discovered in the coming years...but I think it's going to be exciting," Morrison said.

Earth look-alikes?

The growing roster of planets found outside our solar system has shored up the prospect for "a whole lot of life" out there," said Jill Tarter, Director of The Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

"What a fabulous opportunity to think about the boundaries of what that life might be like," Tarter said. "The planets are there. We can't deny that anymore. It's really setting the backdrop and driving forward everybody's thinking. So it just gets more exciting to think about how nature might have generalized biology and geology," she said.

Tarter also pointed to the Kepler mission and its future scouting for Earth-like planets. "This decade we're going to be able to tell you something about the demographics of terrestrial planets. Either they are prevalent or they are very rare. But this is the decade to get those data," she said.

There will be a capability of getting that answer, agreed Nick Woolf, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But he's not ready to sign up for lots of Earth look-alikes out there.

"I started off expecting Earth-like planets to be very common...and have become steadily more cautious," Woolf advised. "That does not mean that my change of opinion is correct. I believe that the attitude we should adopt at the present is agnostic."