Recently in the Astrobiology Category


Rosetta fuels debate on origin of Earth's oceansESA's Rosetta spacecraft has found the water vapour from its target comet to be significantly different to that found on Earth. The discovery fuels the debate on the origin of our planet's oceans.

Earth's Water Is Much Older Than the Sun

Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets.

NASA space-based observatories are making unprecedented new discoveries and revealing worlds never before seen.

Scientists using the Herschel space observatory have made the first definitive detection of water vapor on the largest and roundest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres.

Hi Keith: My research team and I are now camped on the shores of Lake Obersee, a few km NE of Lake Untersee in the mountains of Queen Maud Land.

How did life on Earth get started? Three new papers co-authored by Mike Russell, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., strengthen the case that Earth's first life began at alkaline hydrothermal vents at the bottom of oceans.

In this paper, the detectability of habitable exomoons orbiting around giant planets in M-dwarf systems using Transit Timing Variations (TTVs) and Transit Timing Durations (TDVs) with Kepler-class photometry is investigated. Light curves of systems with various configurations were simulated around M-dwarf hosts of mass 0.5 Msun and radius 0.55 Rsun.

The number of potentially habitable planets is greater than previously thought, according to a new analysis by a Penn State researcher, and some of those planets are likely lurking around nearby stars.

Even dying stars could host planets with life -- and if such life exists, we might be able to detect it within the next decade. This encouraging result comes from a new theoretical study of Earth-like planets orbiting white dwarf stars. Researchers found that we could detect oxygen in the atmosphere of a white dwarf's planet much more easily than for an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star.

Researchers searching the galaxy for planets that could pass the litmus test of sustaining water-based life must find whether those planets fall in what's known as a habitable zone. New work, led by a team of Penn State researchers, will help scientists in that search.

Life is Possible on Extrasolar Moons

In their search for habitable worlds, astronomers have started to consider exomoons, or those likely orbiting planets outside the solar system. In a new study, a pair of researchers has found that exomoons are just as likely to support life as exoplanets.

Melt Water on Mars Could Sustain Life

Near surface water has shaped the landscape of Mars. Areas of the planet's northern and southern hemispheres have alternately thawed and frozen in recent geologic history and comprise striking similarities to the landscape of Svalbard.

SETI Institute announces today it has received a donation of $3.5 million from Franklin Antonio, Co-founder and Chief Scientist of Qualcomm.

Asteroid Belts - Friendly to Life

Solar systems with life-bearing planets may be rare if they are dependent on the presence of asteroid belts of just the right mass, according to a study by Rebecca Martin, a NASA Sagan Fellow from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and astronomer Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

Most researchers imagine the initial oxygenation of the ocean and atmosphere to have been something like a staircase, but with steps only going up.

"Detections of massive extrasolar moons are shown feasible with the Kepler space telescope. Kepler's findings of about 50 exoplanets in the stellar habitable zone naturally make us wonder about the habitability of their hypothetical moons. Illumination from the planet, eclipses, tidal heating, and tidal locking distinguish remote characterization of exomoons from that of exoplanets. We show how evaluation of an exomoon's habitability is possible based on the parameters accessible by current and near-future technology." More

ESA's Herschel space observatory has discovered enough water vapour to fill Earth's oceans more than 2000 times over, in a gas and dust cloud that is on the verge of collapsing into a new Sun-like star.

Insights From Mars-like Places on Earth

Life thrives on Planet Earth. In even the most inhospitable places -- the freezing Antarctic permafrost, Sun-baked salt pans in Tunisia or the corrosively acidic Rio Tinto in Spain -- pockets of life can be found. Some of these locations have much in common with environments found on Mars, as discovered by orbiters and rovers exploring the surface.

Astronomers have discovered a veritable rogues' gallery of odd exoplanets -- from scorching hot worlds with molten surfaces to frigid ice balls.

A team of astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) has spotted sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star.

Astronauts dream of finding new life and for a select crew that dream might be within reach this week - albeit deep underground instead of in outer space.

Mars, Everest, and Tricorders

Ocean Optics Spectrometers Land Safely on Mars

"Three Ocean Optics instruments have completed their eight month journey to Mars to study soil composition as part of the ChemCam mission. The company's modular Jaz spectrometer scaled Mt. Everest with a team that included NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski to measure solar irradiance at extreme altitude."

Using a Tricorder on Mount Everest

"If you've ever seen a Starfleet away team beaming down to a new planet, you know that the first thing they do is whip out their tricorder and scan everything. Many of NASA's astrobiologists want one. Well, Scott and I had one at Everest."

Keith's note: I carried this cool device up to Everest Base Camp and then Scott carried it up the mountain. Its not unusual for people to trek into Everest with the latest high tech gear on display but every time I pulled this thing out people stopped to watch me go through my procedure. I took this promo photo of Scott using the Jaz unit while we were standing next to our tents at Everest Base Camp. An instant later we heard a loud noise coming from the icefall. An instant later I switched my camera from still to video and shot this video. This was one of the largest avalanches in recent seasons. Had I not been taking the PR shot of Scott and the Jaz unit I'd have missed most of this avalanche.

2012 Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower is underway. There's more to see than meteors, however, when the shower peaks on August 11th through 13th. The brightest planets in the solar system are lining up in the middle of the display.

By some estimates, a third of Earth's organisms live in our planet's rocks and sediments, yet their lives are almost a complete mystery. This week, the work of microbiologist James Holden of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and colleagues shines a light into this dark world.

Clue to How Life Turned Left

Researchers analyzing meteorite fragments that fell on a frozen lake in Canada have developed an explanation for the origin of life's handedness - why living things only use molecules with specific orientations.

Scientists have long believed that comets and a type of very primitive meteorite called carbonaceous chondrites were the sources of early Earth's volatile elements -- which include hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon -- and possibly organic material, too. Understanding where these volatiles came from is crucial for determining the origins of both water and life on the planet.

"It's a project 500 million years in the making. Only this time, instead of playing on a movie screen in Jurassic Park, it's happening in a lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Using a process called paleo-experimental evolution, Georgia Tech researchers have resurrected a 500-million-year-old gene from bacteria and inserted it into modern-day Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. This bacterium has now been growing for more than 1,000 generations, giving the scientists a front row seat to observe evolution in action. "This is as close as we can get to rewinding and replaying the molecular tape of life," said scientist Betuel Kacar, a NASA astrobiology postdoctoral fellow in Georgia Tech's NASA Center for Ribosomal Origins and Evolution. "The ability to observe an ancient gene in a modern organism as it evolves within a modern cell allows us to see whether the evolutionary trajectory once taken will repeat itself or whether a life will adapt following a different path." More

NASA has narrowed the target for its most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, which will land on the Red Planet in August. The car-sized rover will arrive closer to its ultimate destination for science operations, but also closer to the foot of a mountain slope that poses a landing hazard.

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder looking for organisms that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable soils on Earth has found a hardy few.

A report in the May 4 edition of the journal Science details discoveries Opportunity made in its first four months at the rim of Endeavour Crater, including key findings reported at a geophysics conference in late 2011.

Recent discoveries of planets similar to Earth in size and proximity to the planets' respective suns have sparked scientific and public excitement about the possibility of also finding Earth-like life on those worlds.

January 5, 2012

I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me. I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart. I am the kind that makes little boys gag at the dinner table thus being sent to bed without their dessert. I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini - and I am in space.

A Washington State University astrobiologist is leading a group of 20 scientists in calling for a mission to Mars with "a strong and comprehensive life detection component." At the heart of their proposal is a small fleet of sensor packages that can punch into the Martian soil and run a range of tests for signs of ancient or existing life.

We study HIP 56948, the best solar twin known to date, to determine with an unparalleled precision how similar is to the Sun in its physical properties, chemical composition and planet architecture. We explore whether the abundances anomalies may be due to pollution from stellar ejecta or to terrestrial planet formation.

SETI Live Is Now Online

TED, SETI Institute and Zooniverse Launch SETI LIVE to Empower Citizen Scientists to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

"As part of the TED Prize Wish made by renowned astronomer Jill Tarter, the TED Prize today launches SETI Live (setilive.org): a site where - for the first time - the public can view data being collected by radio telescopes and collectively help search for intelligent life on other planets. TED, the nonprofit dedicated to Ideas Worth Spreading, established the TED Prize in 2005, born out of a vision by the world's leading entrepreneurs, innovators, and entertainers to turn ideas into action one Wish at a time. SETI Live was created in collaboration with Zooniverse team at Chicago's Adler Planetarium and is the latest development of Dr. Tarter's 2009 TED Prize wish, "to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company."

By observing the Moon using ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers have found evidence of life in the universe -- on Earth. Finding life on our home planet may sound like a trivial observation, but the novel approach of an international team may lead to future discoveries of life elsewhere in the universe. The work is described in a paper to appear in the 1 March 2012 issue of the journal Nature.

Oscillations in the Habitable Zone around Alpha Centauri B

"The Alpha Centauri AB system is an attractive one for radial velocity observations to detect potential exoplanets. The high metallicity of both Alpha Centauri A and B suggest that they could have possessed circumstellar discs capable of forming planets. As the closest star system to the Sun, with well over a century of accurate astrometric measurements (and Alpha Centauri B exhibiting low chromospheric activity) high precision surveys of Alpha Centauri B's potential exoplanetary system are possible with relatively cheap instrumentation."

Happy Holidays From Antarctica

"25 December: Astrobiologist Dale Andersen from the SETI Institute is currently on his way back to the U.s. via a stop over in Capetown, South Africa. Dale and his team spent a month or so at Lake Untersee in Antarctica. This photo was taken shortly before Christmas. Dale is shown holding a patch for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education."

FameLab Astrobiology Competition

NASA Makes Science Communication Competition Interplanetary

"NASA, Cheltenham Festivals (UK) and the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS) are pleased to announce a partnership to operate a FameLab competition for the first time. The competition will be held in the fields of astrobiology and planetary sciences, and is open to all scientists working in these diverse areas of research. FameLab Astrobiology workshops will train scientists and engineers to convey complex scientific concepts to the public. The training, coaching and recognition provided by these events builds the confidence needed to apply communication skills in a wide variety of situations."

Citizen Science Project at Pavilion Lake

New Citizen Science Project: Pavilion Lake Research Project

"Interested in helping scientists pinpoint where to look for signs of life on Mars? Now you can, with an exciting new citizen science website called MAPPER (getmapper.com) that was launched in conjunction with the Pavilion Lake Research Project's 2011 field season. The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP, pavilionlake.com), which is supported by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, has been investigating the underwater environment of Pavilion and Kelly Lake in British Columbia, Canada with DeepWorker submersible vehicles (Nuytco Ltd, nuytco.com) since 2008. Now with MAPPER, you can work side-by-side with NASA scientists to explore the bottom of these lakes from the perspective of a DeepWorker pilot."

Tricorders for Astrobiology

Building the Tools for Astrobiology's Future, NAI

"The NASA Astrobiology program has selected eight new projects for funding under the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Instrument Development Program (ASTID). The ASTID program is an essential component in furthering NASA's astrobiology goals, and provides funding for new instruments that can be used in space missions as well as Earth-based research projects. ASTID projects turn novel concepts into laboratory instruments that will open new areas of study and the development of astrobiology mission concepts and payloads for future missions."

Disney, Fox and James Cameron to Bring AVATAR to Life at Disney Parks

"AVATAR created a world which audiences can discover again and again and now, through this incredible partnership with Disney, we'll be able to bring Pandora to life like never before. With two new AVATAR films currently in development, we'll have even more locations, characters and stories to explore," said James Cameron. "I'm chomping at the bit to start work with Disney's legendary Imagineers to bring our AVATAR universe to life. Our goal is to go beyond current boundaries of technical innovation and experiential storytelling, and give park goers the chance to see, hear, and touch the world of AVATAR with an unprecedented sense of reality."

Think about this: NASA and Disney have had multiple collaborations in the past. One of the most recent was with the film "Wall-e". James Cameron is a former NASA Advisory Council member and made an astrobiology-themed theatrial release in 2005 "Aliens of the Deep" (with Disney) which featured young NASA astrobiologists diving in submersibles. In the 1980s EPCOT and NASA KSC worked together on a variety of closed life support system concepts. Perhaps NASA could become a partner in this Avatar theme park effort effort and provide astrobiology advisors to this new venture so as to allow visitors to understand what it would take to find Pandora (a habitable moon circling a gas giant planet that circles another star), travel to it, and then explore the alien ecosystem that thrives on such a world. By coincidence the DARPA 100 Year Starship Conference is being held in Orlando in 2 weeks. Alas, NASA PAO is downplaying NASA's participation in this conference.

The pool of candidates for the NAI/APS 2011 competition was the largest we have ever experienced. Typically six to seven selections are made annually, however for 2011 twelve young investigators were selected for the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology.

Congratulations go to:

Budget crunch mothballs telescopes built to search for alien signals, Scientific American

"The hunt for extraterrestrial life just lost one of its best tools. The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a field of radio dishes in rural northern California built to seek out transmissions from distant alien civilizations, has been shuttered, at least temporarily, as its operators scramble to find a way to continue to fund it. In an April 22 letter to donors, Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., explained that the ATA has been put into "hibernation," meaning that "starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff." The ATA is a partnership between the SETI Institute, which is responsible for building the telescope array, and the University of California, Berkeley, which is responsible for operating it."

Baruch Blumberg Passes Away, David Morrison, SETI Institute

"I was privileged to have lunch with Barry the day he died. He was attending a conference at Ames discussing exploration planning and its relationships with science and education. He presented a paper on the value of citizen science, where thousands of ordinary people can contribute significantly to science while also enjoying themselves in working with real spacecraft data, such as the high-resolution images now being received from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter."

Baruch Samuel Blumberg 1925-2011, earlier post

"Whether or not you remember the winter of 2011 as unusually cold or snowy, an adventurous team of experts will remember its intense heat, as they searched for microbial life between sand dunes in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were searching for simple life forms that also may exist on other planets. The United States team consisted of teachers Mike Wing and Lucinda Land, NASA space scientists Chris McKay and Jon Rask, and education specialist Matthew Reyes. Together, they embarked on a high adventure desert expedition from Feb. 18 - Mar. 4 with UAE students and teachers as part of a NASA education program, called Spaceward Bound. Developed at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., Spaceward Bound's mission is to train the next generation of space explorers. Led by the U.S. team, local students and teachers from the Emirates were given real planetary research experience using remote, extreme environments in the UAE deserts as analogs for Mars and Saturn's moon, Titan." More

We are now accepting applications to the NAI-sponsored Astrobiology Research Focus Group Workshop: an intensive three-day training workshop for early career astrobiologists. The goal of this workshop is to build collaborative proposal writing & research skills in the next generation of astrobiology scientists. Through the course of the workshop, participants create an original proposal on a topic relevant to the current state of astrobiology research, which must be presented to a body of peers. Participants are encouraged to use the workshop as a forum for exploring creative and original research topics.

Only days before the NASA Stardust spacecraft beamed home comet photos long awaited by astronomers, other researchers revealed the factors that motivated citizens to volunteer without pay to examine more than a million images of space dust captured by the spacecraft's predecessor.

The team of researchers headed by Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) Assistant Professor of Technology Management Oded Nov reported citizen astronomers were best motivated to spend unpaid hours looking for microscopic stardust particles by the project's objectives, the fun they experienced and the reaction they expected from their friends and family. Some of those motivations varied significantly from other crowd-sourced projects.

The iConference 2011, held February 8 - 11, 2011 in Seattle, chose "Dusting for Science: Motivation and Participation of Digital Citizen Science Volunteers" for its Best Paper Award. Co-authors are Nov, Ofer Arazy of the University of Alberta School of Business and David Anderson of Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). A few days after the conference closed, on February 14, the second Stardust spacecraft beamed home its comet images. Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers have been sifting for years through 1.6 million series of digital images in search of interstellar dust captured by the predecessor Stardust spacecraft. That daunting volunteer project, called Stardust@home and headed by UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory Associate Director Andrew Westphal, was studied by Nov and his colleagues.

Application Deadline: February 15, 2011

The American Philosophical Society and the NASA Astrobiology Institute have partnered to promote the continued exploration of the world around us through a program of research grants in support of astrobiological field studies undertaken by graduate students, postdoctoral students, and junior scientists and scholars.

The 2011 Undergraduate Research Associates in Astrobiology Program is a 10-week program for undergraduate students interested in working with scientists whose research adds to the current body of astrobiology knowledge. Each research associate (RA) will participate in a specific research program, working directly with one of our Team scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center. The RA will work closely with the mentor to conduct a well-defined investigation, reduce data, and produce an end-of- program presentation. The presentation will demonstrate the knowledge gained over the course of the summer, and will be given in an oral forum during the last week of the program. As a group, the RAs will meet with a different GCA Team member each week to learn more about his/her respective area of research, and to gain a broader view of Astrobiology.

We report on the software architecture we developed for the Open University's remotely controlled telescope PIRATE. This facility is based in Mallorca and used in distance learning modules by undergraduate students and by postgraduate students for research projects. PIRATE (Physics Innovations Robotic Astronomical Telescope Explorer) is a largely Open University funded facility consisting of a small aperture reflecting telescope on a robotic mount, in a robotic dome on top of the main observatory building at the Observatori Astronomic de Mallorca (OAM). Initially, the optical tube assembly (OTA) was a 14 inch (35 cm) f/10 Schmidt Cassegrain telescope (a Celestron 14; PIRATE Mark I). In August 2010 this was upgraded to a PlaneWave Instruments CDK17, a 17 inch (0.43 m) f/6.8 corrected Dall-Kirkham astrograph telescope (PIRATE Mark II).

Web users around the globe will be able to help professional astronomers in their search for Earth-like planets thanks to a new online citizen science project called Planet Hunters that launches December 16 at http://www.planethunters.org.

Planet Hunters, which is the latest in the Zooniverse citizen science project collection, will ask users to help analyze data taken by NASA's Kepler mission. The space telescope has been searching for planets beyond our own solar system -- called exoplanets -- since its launch in March 2009.

NASA is preparing to fly a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread that could help answer astrobiologys fundamental questions about the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. The nanosatellite, known as Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses, or O/OREOS, is a secondary payload aboard a U.S. Air Force four-stage Minotaur IV rocket planned for launch on Nov. 19, 2010.

NASA's Ames Research Center and Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation, Moffett Field, Calif., today announced a collaboration to develop a high-altitude high-velocity air sampling system for NASA biological experiments.

Under the terms of a Space Act Agreement, Mavericks, in collaboration with NASA scientists, will develop and operate airborne science platforms to carry biological sampling devices and retrieve organisms, such as microbes, algal spores, viruses, and fungi, and other evidence of life from lower atmosphere to the upper atmosphere, or more than 78 miles above the surface of Earth. Mavericks will provide payload launch capabilities, instrumentation on sounding rockets and research balloons, and facilitate NASA flights on other space vehicles.

The Real Science of Avatar

The Real Science of Avatar - How James Cameron drew inspiration for the flora and fauna on Pandora from life forms on Earth, Time

"The message of James Cameron's Avatar, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray April 22 in conjunction with Earth Day, is unapologetically green. "All life on Earth is connected," the director told me, when I interviewed him for my book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. "We have taken from nature without giving back, and the time to pay the piper is coming."

Probe may have found cosmic dust, BBC

"The discovery was made by a member of the public, using the Stardust@Home internet application, which invited participants to search the aerogel collection medium for tiny particles of the dust. "There are two particles, but they are in the same track. So when they hit the aerogel, they were together - they are two components of the same particle," Dr Westphal told BBC News. "But they are very different from each other. That in itself is interesting, because if this does turn out to be interstellar dust, then it is a bit more heterogeneous than people thought." The initial speck, known as particle 30, was spotted by Bruce Hudson, from Ontario in Canada. Under the agreement made between the science team and participants in Stardust@Home, Mr Hudson was allowed to choose a name for the particle; he called it Orion."

Planetary Stewardship

Pave New Worlds, Are We Alone podcast, SETI Institute

"The extra-solar planet count is more than 400 and rising. Before long we may find an Earth-like planet around another star. If we do, and can visit, what next? Stake out our claim on an alien world or tread lightly and preserve it? We'll look at what our record on Earth says about our planet stewardship. Also, whether a massive technological fix can get us out of our climate mess. Plus, what we can learn about extreme climate from our neighbors in the solar system, Venus and Mars."

- Ken Caldeira - Climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University
- Keith Cowing - Biologist, and editor of NASAwatch.com (podcast segment)
- Kathryn Denning - Anthropologist at York University in Canada
- Gary Davis - Director of the Joint Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii
- David Grinspoon - Curator of the Denver Museum of Science and Nature

The Cyborg Astrobiologist

In previous work, two platforms have been developed for testing computer-vision algorithms for robotic planetary exploration (McGuire et al. 2004b,2005; Bartolo et al. 2007). The wearable-computer platform has been tested at geological and astrobiological field sites in Spain (Rivas Vaciamadrid and Riba de Santiuste), and the phone-camera has been tested at a geological field site in Malta.

In this work, we (i) apply a Hopfield neural-network algorithm for novelty detection based upon color, (ii) integrate a field-capable digital microscope on the wearable computer platform, (iii) test this novelty detection with the digital microscope at Rivas Vaciamadrid, (iv) develop a Bluetooth communication mode for the phone-camera platform, in order to allow access to a mobile processing computer at the field sites, and (v) test the novelty detection on the Bluetooth-enabled phone-camera connected to a netbook computer at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.