November 2009

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) is organizing a session at AbSciCon 2010 on "Integrating Astrobiology Research Across and Beyond the Community." The concept for the session reflects one of astrobiology's defining characteristics and a core mission of NAI: bringing together researchers from many disciplines to develop and foster interdisciplinary collaborations in astrobiology research. Participation in this session is invited regardless of affiliation with the NAI. The goal is to develop and foster interdisciplinary collaborations across the astrobiology community, with other science communities not currently engaged in astrobiology research, and with other communities such as philosophy of science, ethics, anthropology, etc.

We invite you to submit an abstract for this session. Abstracts should describe an innovative interdisciplinary collaboration addressing astrobiology research or its societal implications. Presentations on collaborations that are underway, in formation, or contemplated/desired are all welcome. Please note that the abstract deadline is Dec. 3, 2009. For further information about AbSciCon 2010 and abstract submission, please see the following websites:

Meeting date and location: April 26-29, 2010, at the South Shore Harbor Resort and Conference Center in League City, Texas.

Conference website:

Abstract submission information:

ABSTRACT DEADLINE: 5:00 p.m. (CST) Thursday, December 3, 2009

[Source: Carl B. Pilcher, Director NASA Astrobiology Institute]

Women in Aerospace recently awarded Dr. Linda Billings the Lifetime Achievement Award for more than 25 years of excellence in communicating with the public about the nation's space program. As a journalist, she has covered energy, environment, and labor relations as well as aerospace. As a researcher, she has worked on communication strategy, media analysis, and audience research for NASA's astrobiology, Mars exploration, and planetary protection programs. Her research has focused on the role that journalists play in constructing the cultural authority of scientists, the rhetorical strategies that scientists and journalists employ in communicating about science, and the rhetoric of space exploration.

Currently a research professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., she also does communication research for NASA's astrobiology program in the Science Mission Directorate. In addition, she advises NASA's Senior Scientist for Mars Exploration and Planetary Protection Officer on communications. Photographs from the WIA Awards ceremony can be viewed at: [Source NASA Astrobiology]

This past week in Rome as part of the International Year of Astronomy, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a Study Week on Astrobiology, an interdisciplinary event during which "cloistered astrobiologists confronted each other's fields of research" and dialogued about the connections. The participants included many from the extended astrobiology community, including John Baross, David Charbonneau, Roger Summons, Andy Knoll, Chris Impey, Jonathan Lunine, Jill Tarter, Sara Seager, and Giovanna Tinetti.

Daniel Glavin has been selected by the international Meteoritical Society as the recipient of the 2010 Nier Prize. The prestigious Nier Prize is awarded to young scientists performing valuable research in fields related to meteoritics and planetary science.

Dr. Glavin was presented with the prize for his work on extraterrestrial organic chemistry. By examining carbonaceous meteorites, Glavin and his team have made important contributions toward understanding why life uses only left-handed versions of amino acids. It turns out that molecules delivered to Earth in meteorites may have played a role in life's eventual bias toward molecules of a specific orientation. The work was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Source NASA Astrobiology]

ASGSB (American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology) announces new executive director, and elects 2010-2011 president and new members to the board of Directors.

On November 7, 2009, the society elected the following new members to the Board of Directors, Kenneth M. Baldwin, University of California, Irvine; Jeanne L. Becker, NSBRI/Baylor College of Medicine; Cary Mitchell, Purdue University; Joseph S. Tash, University of Kansas Medical Center; and Jack J.W.A. Van Loon VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Dr. Marshall Portfield from Purdue University was selected as the president-elect for 2010-2011.His term begins November 2011. Current ASGSB president, Dr. Terri Lomax from North Carolina State University also announced a new executive director, Ms. Cindy Martin-Brennan. Congratulations to all. [Source: ASGSB]

Editor's note: "Avatar", a film by former NASA Advisory Committee member James Cameron, will debut across the planet on 18 December. Widely hailed as "ground breaking" the film may well push the boundaries of what can be portrayed on the big screen. The film centers around humans mining precious materials on a world in the Alpha Centauri star system - and the inevitable conflict that arises with the local (sentient) inhabitants. The film delves into a wide range of issues that intersect with what NASA's Astrobiology Institute and Exobiology Programs have looked into in one way or another.

Unparalleled simulations of an extrasolar planet with a whole new ecology - but it would seem that NASA is not really interested in this film.

NAI's New York Center for Astrobiology held its first Teachers Academy at RPI on July 13-16, 2009. Nine high school science teachers from four local school districts collaborated with six NAI scientists to learn about topics in astrobiology. The participants represent disciplines across the sciences: biology, chemistry, earth science, forensic science, and physics. The goal of the Academy was to develop a learning module infused with astrobiology and aligned with New York State standards and NASA Astrobiology Science Goals. The teachers used science lectures, existing astrobiology curriculum materials, and consistent interaction with the scientists to develop their learning modules, which ranged in topic from the physiochemical limits to sustainable life, to colors of photosynthetic organisms on exoplanets, to nucleosynthesis of biologically-relevant elements. The teachers are implementing their modules in their classrooms this school year, and the Academy will be featured at the annual regional meeting of the Science Teachers Association of New York State in March, 2010. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

This summer, sixteen teachers from around the world convened with NAI's team at Montana State University for a week-long class called "Examining Life in Extreme Environments: Insights into Early Earth and Beyond." Students in the course gained an understanding of the relation of extreme environments to early Earth, learned about the latest research conducted in these areas, and worked on how to teach and discuss these topics within their own classrooms.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Postdoctoral Scholars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) invites applicants to apply for two postdoctoral research positions at JPL in the Planetary Science Section of the Science Division. Each opportunity is supported by a NASA grant to two separate, small, collaborative teams. The successful candidates, while having their own projects, will be expected to work with team members in other institutions.

NASA announces a call for graduate fellowship proposals to the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) program for the 2010-2011 academic year. This call for fellowship proposals solicits applications from accredited U.S. universities on behalf of individuals pursuing Master of Science (M.Sc.) or Doctoral (Ph.D.) degrees in Earth and space sciences, or related disciplines. The purpose of NESSF is to ensure continued training of a highly qualified workforce in disciplines needed to achieve NASA's scientific goals. Awards resulting from the competitive selection will be made in the form of training grants to the respective universities.

The deadline for NEW applications is February 1, 2010, and the deadline for RENEWAL applications is March 15, 2010.

Members of NAI's team at Georgia Tech have a new paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution describing an analysis of ribosomal structure and sequence. Their approach chronicles the ribosome's evolution, effectively interpreting the ribosome as a fossil. Using the highest resolution structures available, of two species that represent disparate regions of the evolutionary tree, they have sectioned the large subunit of each ribosome into concentric shells, like an onion, using the site of peptidyl transfer as the origin. Their results suggest that the structure and interactions of both RNA and protein can be described as changing, in an observable manner, over evolutionary time. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Taellberg, Sweden - June 14-18, 2010: In 2010, AbGradCon, the foremost astrobiology meeting for early-career researchers, will be held in Europe for the first time in its history. Graduate students and early-career postdocs from all over the world will come together to present their research in a comfortable environment, to learn of the latest developments in astrobiology, to network and to forge new collaborations. The meeting will comprise oral and poster presentations, half-day workshops and a one-day field trip to geologically instructive sites in the astrobiologically interesting Siljan impact crater. Attendees are encouraged from the very wide range of subjects pertinent to astrobiology. Financial assistance will be available to invited attendees. Further information is available at the conference website: [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Dust samples collected by high-flying aircraft in the upper atmosphere have yielded an unexpectedly rich trove of relicts from the ancient cosmos, report scientists from NAI's Carnegie Institution of Washington team in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The stratospheric dust includes minute grains that likely formed inside stars that lived and died long before the birth of our sun, as well as material from molecular clouds in interstellar space. This "ultra-primitive" material likely wafted into the atmosphere after the Earth passed through the trail of an Earth-crossing comet in 2003, giving scientists a rare opportunity to study cometary dust in the laboratory.

It is widely accepted that around 2.4 billion years ago, the Earth's atmosphere underwent a dramatic change when oxygen levels rose sharply. Called the "Great Oxidation Event" (GOE), the oxygen spike marks an important milestone in Earth's history, the transformation from an oxygen-poor atmosphere to an oxygen-rich one paving the way for complex life to develop on the planet.

Two questions that remain unresolved in studies of the early Earth are when oxygen production via photosynthesis got started and when it began to alter the chemistry of Earth's ocean and atmosphere.

Date/Time: Tuesday November 10, 2009 2:30PM Pacific

Speaker: Kevin Hand (Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Abstract: The plumes and observed heat flux in the South Polar Terrain of Enceladus remain a considerable mystery. We report that Joule heating in Enceladus - resulting from the interaction of Enceladus with Saturn's magnetic field - may account for several, to a few tens of megawatts of power across the observed "tiger stripe" fractures. Electric currents passing through subsurface channels of low salinity and just a few kilometres in depth could supply a source of power to the South Polar Terrain, providing a small but previously unaccounted for contribution to the observed heat flux and plume activity. For more information and participation instructions: [Source: NAI Newsletter]

The NAI extends its congratulations to University of Hawaii team member Tobias Owen for receiving the 2009 Gerard P. Kuiper Prize. The Gerard P. Kuiper Prize was established by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) to recognize and honor outstanding contributors to planetary science. It is to be awarded to scientists whose achievements have most advanced our understanding of the planetary system. For more information: [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Date/Time: Monday, November 30, 2009 11:00AM Pacific Speaker: Andrew Pohorille (NASA Ames Research Center)

Abstract: "Follow the water" is the canonical strategy in searching for life in the universe. Conventionally, discussion of this topic is focused on the ability of a solvent to support organic chemistry sufficiently rich to seed life. Although this is a necessary condition for the emergence of life it is far from being sufficient. Perhaps more importantly, solvent must promote self-organization of organic matter into functional structures capable of responding to environmental changes. In biology, they are mostly based on non-covalent interactions (interactions that do not involve making or breaking chemical bonds), strength of which must be properly tuned. If non-covalent interactions were too weak, the system would exhibit undesired, uncontrolled response to natural fluctuations of physical and chemical parameters. If they were too strong kinetics of biological processes would be slow and energetics costly.