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April 2012


For centuries, theories of planet formation were guided exclusively by our solar system. However, the discovery of planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets) has demonstrated that nature often produces planetary systems quite different from our own, neither anticipated by nor well explained by the current theories of solar system formation and dynamics.

In this one week program, scientists from the fields of planetary science, celestial mechanics, astronomy and astrophysics will meet to discuss new developments in the field of extrasolar multi-planet systems. Our workshop will provide an environment where these scientists can present new ideas, discuss their implications for identifying the most important problems in the field and chart the field's future direction.

The meeting will be held either February 9-15 or February 10-16, 2013. We anticipate nearly 100 participants. The Aspen Center for Physics will coordinate applications, registration and housing. We will update the meeting website with information as these details become available. See the ACP website for further information about registration, housing and day care for previous winter meetings. Young scientists, women and underrepresented minorities are all encouraged to apply.

Astrobiology Science News 24 April 2012

A study published in PLoS Computational Biology maps the development of life-sustaining chemistry to the history of early life. Researchers Rogier Braakman and Eric Smith of the Santa Fe Institute traced the six methods of carbon fixation seen in modern life back to a single ancestral form.

Carbon fixation - life's mechanism for making carbon dioxide biologically useful - forms the biggest bridge between Earth's non-living chemistry and its biosphere. All organisms that fix carbon do so in one of six ways. These six mechanisms have overlaps, but it was previously unclear which of the six types came first, and how their development interweaved with environmental and biological changes.

The authors used a method that creates "trees" of evolutionary relatedness based on genetic sequences and metabolic traits. From this, they were able to reconstruct the complete early evolutionary history of biological carbon-fixation, relating all ways in which life today performs this function.

The earliest form of carbon fixation identified achieved a special kind of built-in robustness - not seen in modern cells - by layering multiple carbon-fixing mechanisms. This redundancy allowed early life to compensate for a lack of refined control over its internal chemistry, and formed a template for the later splits that created the earliest major branches in the tree of life. For example, the first major life-form split came with the earliest appearance of oxygen on Earth, causing the ancestors of blue-green algae and most other bacteria to separate from the branch that includes Archaea, which are outside of bacteria the other major early group of single-celled microorganisms.

"It seems likely that the earliest cells were rickety assemblies whose parts were constantly malfunctioning and breaking down," explains Smith. "How can any metabolism be sustained with such shaky support? The key is concurrent and constant redundancy."

Undergraduate students, graduate students, and post docs are invited to apply to the 2012 Sao Paulo School of Advanced Science, held from 19-31 August, 2012 on Ilhabela, an archipelago 200km from Sao Paulo, Brazil. The school will be organized around the theme of evolution, addressing topics such as paleontology, phylogenetics, homology, and character evolution, and will feature instructors from both North and South America. For more information: http://www.ib.usp.br/zoologia/evolution/index.html

NASA is seeking proposals from accredited U.S. universities on behalf of outstanding early career faculty beginning their independent careers. This inaugural Space Technology Research Opportunities for Early Career Faculty solicitation seeks to sponsor research in specific, high priority technology areas of interest to NASA.

Specific topic areas were selected because they can best benefit from early stage innovative approaches provided by U.S. academic institutions. The research will investigate unique, disruptive or transformational space technologies or concepts.

"NASA is committed to ensuring our nation's intellectual capital pipeline remains the best in the world, and that we bring the brightest minds together with the best ideas to meet the challenges of NASA's future missions," said Michael Gazarik, Director of NASA's Space Technology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These grants offer a means for NASA to capitalize on the tremendous creativity and innovation that these brilliant individuals have to offer."

NASA expects to award approximately ten grants this fall, funded up to $200,000 each per year, based on the merit of proposals received. The deadline for submitting proposals is May 3. For information on the solicitation, including specific technology areas of interest and how to submit notices of intent and proposals, visit: http://go.usa.gov/P31

The Space Technology Research Opportunities for Early Career Faculty is a part of NASA's Space Technology Program, managed by the Office of the Chief Technologist. For more information about the Space Technology Program and the crosscutting space technology areas of interest to NASA, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/oct

Geological background of the samples analyzed in this study. Panel A shows the geological map at Marble Bar and the location of the ABDP-1 drill core. Panel B shows the simplified stratigraphic column of the lower part of the Pilbara Supergroup, with ages constrained by zircon U-Pb geochronology.

Astrobiologists from NAI's team at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have recently published a study of drill cores obtained through the NAI-funded Archean Biosphere Drilling Project which sampled the 3.4 billion year old Apex Basalt from the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia. Their innovative approach directly dates oxidation products of the ancient rock, and they show that oxidation occurred in the Phanerozoic during deep weathering. Their results indicate that oxidation of the Apex Basalt did not occur in the Archean, and therefore cannot be used to infer an oxygenated atmosphere at that time. Their paper appears in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Early Earth Air Quality: Code Orange

About two and a half billion years ago, Earth might have been confused for Titan. New research suggests that our planet had the same hazy, methane-rich atmosphere as Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

For the first third of the history of life on Earth, the atmosphere was devoid of the oxygen we breathe, supporting a dramatically different chemistry. A new study from a group including memembers of NAI's Virtual Planetary Laboratory Team suggests connections between Earth's atmosphere and its biosphere that induced an orange, hydrocarbon haze that would have blocked incoming sunlight and cooled the planet.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, provides analyses of 2.5 billion year old rock cores from South Africa that reveal a series of unique chemical signatures of atmospheric change. When these data are plugged into atmospheric models, it is revealed that early Earth oscillated between two atmospheric states: one with a thin, orange haze and the other without any haze.

The trigger for these events appears to be atmospheric changes in a potent greenhouse gas, methane. These high concentrations of methane, produced by biological activity, caused the haze and an "anti-greenhouse" effect. This is one of the earliest examples of the tight climatic coupling between Earth and its inhabitants.

Creating some of life's building blocks in space may be a bit like making a sandwich - you can make them cold or hot. This evidence that there is more than one way to make crucial components of life increases the likelihood that life emerged elsewhere in the Universe, according to the research team led by astrobiologists at NAI's Goddard Center for Astrobiology. It also gives support to the theory that a "kit" of ready-made parts created in space and delivered to Earth by impacts from meteorites and comets assisted the origin of life.

In a recent study published in Meteoritics and Planetary Science, scientists from NAI's Goddard Space Flight Center Team analyzed samples from fourteen carbon-rich meteorites with minerals that indicated they had experienced high temperatures - in some cases, over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They found amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, used by life to speed up chemical reactions and build structures like hair, skin, and nails.

Reading the Rocks

For more than a decade, scientists have dismissed claims that examining carbon-rich rocks could yield clues to the atmospheric and oceanic conditions on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Now, however, researchers including members of NAI's MIT Team are challenging that belief, and suggesting that data gleaned from the rocks sheds light on how changes in the atmosphere and oceans helped set the stage for the emergence of animal life.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, described in the March 14 issue of Nature, a group of researchers led by David Johnston, Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, analyzed hundreds of samples of carbon-rich rock collected from sites in Canada, Mongolia, and Namibia. Their findings show that carbon isotope records from the mid-Neoproterozoic era -- between 717 million and 635 million years ago -- can be "read" as a faithful snapshot of the surface carbon cycle.

NASA and the Library of Congress have announced the selection of David H. Grinspoon to be the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA-Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. The chair, selected through an international competition, is named for the late Nobel Laureate and founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Baruch "Barry" Blumberg. Applications are solicited by the Library of Congress and reviewed by a panel jointly established by the Library and NASA. The prestigious position was created in November 2011.

Grinspoon will be in residence for a year beginning November 2012 at the library's scholarly research organization, the Kluge Center, in Washington. He is the curator of astrobiology in the Department of Space Sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Grinspoon is a well-known researcher in planetary science and the author of the award-winning book "Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life."

The NASA Astrobiology Program is pleased to announce the selection of four new NASA Postdoctoral Fellows:

Jose Aponte
Advisor: Jamie Elsila-Cook (NAI Goddard Center for Astrobiology Team)
Topic: "Assessment of Isotopic Ratios and Enantiomeric Excess of Neutral Compounds and Amines Found on Carbonaceous Chondrites"

Tammy Campbell
Advisor: Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy (Exobiology: Prebiotic Evolution)
Topic: "Non-Enzymatic Glycosylation of DNA Nucleobases to Develop Potentially Prebiotic Nucleic Acid Alternatives"

Natascha Riedinger
Advisor: Timothy Lyons (NAI Arizona State University Team)
Topic: "The Fate of Molybdenum and Its Isotopes in Deep, Oxide-rich Marine Sediments: Implications for the Mo Paleoproxy and Oxygen in the Ancient Ocean"

Erik Sperling
Advisor: Andrew Knoll (NAI MIT Team)
Topic: "Reconciling Ecological and Geochemical Triggers of the Cambrian Radiation"

More information about the NPP can be found at http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nai-postdoctoral-fellowship-program/

NASA's research for furthering our understanding of atmospheric composition is geared to providing an improved prognostic capability for such issues (e.g., the recovery of stratospheric ozone and its impacts on surface ultraviolet radiation, the evolution of greenhouse gases and their impacts on climate, and the evolution of tropospheric ozone and aerosols and their impacts on climate and air quality). The modeling and analysis effort is generally aimed at the questions of tropospheric air quality and oxidation efficiency, pollution sourced aerosol where they impact cloud properties, stratospheric chemistry and ozone depletion, and chemistry/climate interactions.

This amendment delays the proposal due date for Appendix A.16 Atmospheric Composition: Modeling and Analysis Program (ACMAP). This will give more time to proposers and better align the selection timeframe with the availability of new fiscal year funds.

The new proposal due date for Appendix A.16 ACMAP, is now October 1, 2012. Notices of Intent are not requested for this program. Table 2 and Table 3 of the Summary of Solicitation for this NRA will be updated to reflect these changes.

On March 12, 2012, this Amendment to the NASA Research Announcement "Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) 2012" (NNH12ZDA001N) was posted on the NASA research opportunity homepage at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/ and appears on the RSS feed at: http://nasascience.nasa.gov/researchers/sara/grant-solicitations/roses-2012

Questions concerning A.16 ACMAP, may be addressed to Richard Eckman, Earth Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC 20546-0001. Email: Richard.S.Eckman@nasa.gov; Telephone: 202-358-2567.

Planetary protection involves preventing biological contamination on both outbound and sample return missions to other planetary bodies. Numerous areas of research in astrobiology/exobiology are improving our understanding of the potential for survival of Earth microbes in extraterrestrial environments, relevant to preventing contamination of other bodies by organisms carried on spacecraft. Research is required to improve NASA's understanding of the potential for both forward and backward contamination, how to minimize it, and to set standards in these areas for spacecraft preparation and operating procedures. Improvements in technologies and methods for evaluating the potential for life in returned samples are also of interest.

For Appendix C.18, The Planetary Protection Research Program, Notices of Intent are now due on June 29, 2012, and Proposals are now due September 5, 2012. This change is being made so that the due dates occur on work days.

On March 9, 2012, this Amendment to the NASA Research Announcement "Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) 2012" (NNH12ZDA001N) was posted on the NASA research opportunity homepage at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/ and appears on the RSS feed at: http://nasascience.nasa.gov/researchers/sara/grant-solicitations/roses-2012

Table 2 and Table 3 of the Summary of Solicitation for this NRA will be updated to reflect these changes.

Questions concerning Appendix C.18, The Planetary Protection Research Program, may be addressed to Cassie Conley, Planetary Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC 20546-0001. Email: cassie.conley@nasa.gov; Telephone: 202-358-3912.

Young scientists are competing to see who is the best communicator. NASA Television will air the FameLab Astrobiology final competition on Monday, April 16, from 7-9 p.m. EDT, live from the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Atlanta. Nichelle Nichols, known for her portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" television series, will host the event.

The competition will be webcast at: http://livestream.com/FameLabAstrobiology

Please join the NAI in welcoming its two newest international partners, the University of Sao Paulo (USP) Research Unit in Astrobiology (NAP-Astrobio) and the Canadian Astrobiology Network.

NAP-Astrobio, led by Jorge Ernesto Horvath and Douglas Galante, is a virtual organization reporting to the Research Provost of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Its purpose is to provide a structure for virtual scientific collaboration as well as the organization of meetings, seminars, and schools. It currently includes Sao Paulo state researchers as well as colleagues distributed countrywide and abroad. For more information see http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/international-partners/active/nap-astrobio/

The Canadian Astrobiology Network (CAN), led by Neil Banerjee and Lyle Whyte, is an organization of institutions and researchers across Canada who are actively engaged in astrobiological research. The CAN builds on the Canadian Astrobiology Training Program - a six-year ~$1.5M program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The goal of CAN is to foster collaboration and integration between Canadian scientists and NAI partner institutions in the U.S. and around the world. For more information see http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/international-partners/active/can/

Date/Time: Monday, April 30, 2012 11:00 AM Pacific

Presenter: Natalie Batalha (San Jose State University)

Abstract: Humankind's speculation about the existence of other worlds like our own turned into a veritable quest with the launch of NASA's Kepler spacecraft in March 2009. The mission is designed to survey a slice of the Milky Way Galaxy to identify planets via transit photometry. The last year of science operation has been a year of milestones in terms of exoplanet characterization: rocky, Earth-size, circumbinary, Habitable Zone, and even invisible planets have made headlines. However, the real work lies in the large sample statistics of the catalogs of viable planet candidates -- statistics that will drive us toward a determination of eta-earth. The Kepler team recently released its third catalog, consisting of 2,321 viable candidates associated with 1,790 stars. Dr. Batalha will describe some of the milestone discoveries that have marked the last year, the make-up of the new catalog, and the strategies moving forward, especially with regards to the recent decision by NASA HQ to support a four year extended mission.

For more information and participation instructions visit: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/seminars/detail/203 . Participation requires only an Internet connection and a browser.

Daiki Horikawa, former NASA Astrobiology Program Postdoctoral Fellow, will present a seminar on the research he conducted during his NPP Fellowship on Tuesday April 24, 2012 at 11 AM Pacific time.

Abstract: Tardigrades are tiny (0.1-1.0 mm in length) invertebrate animals that are distributed in various environmental conditions in many areas from polar to tropical regions throughout the world. Tardigrades are proposed as potential model organisms for astrobiological research due to their extraordinary tolerance to a variety of extreme environmental conditions. In the present study, we show that the tardigrade Ramazzottius varieornatus has resistance to UVC (254 nm) radiation in both hydrated and desiccated anhydrobiotic states. R. varieornatus in the hydrated state survived and produced a second generation after exposure to 2.5 kJ/m2 of UVC radiation. We found that R. varieornatus has efficient systems for repairing detrimental photoproduct thymine dimers in DNA following massive UVC irradiation and that this species also has the ability to avoid UVC-induced thymine dimer formation in DNA in the anhydrobiotic state. In R. varieornatus accumulation of thymine dimers in DNA induced by irradiation with 2.5 kJ/m2 of UVC radiation disappeared 18 h after the exposure when the animals were exposed to fluorescent light.

A putative homolog of the D. melanogaster photo repair gene (phrA) was found in the R. varieornatus genome, suggesting that this gene is partly responsible for repairing damaged DNA after UVC irradiation. Much higher UV radiation tolerance was observed in the anhydrobiotic R. varieornatus compared to hydrated specimens of this species. Progeny was produced from tardigrades exposed to even 20 kJ/m2 of UVC radiation. The anhydrobiotes of R. varieornatus accumulated much less UVC-induced thymine dimmers in DNA than hydrated one. It suggests that anhydrobiosis efficiently avoids DNA damage accumulation in R. varieornatus and confers better UV radiation tolerance on this species. In conclusion, it is proposed that UV radiation tolerance in tardigrades is due to the both high capacities of DNA damage repair and DNA protection. The remarkable tolerance of R. varieornatus to UV radiation suggests multicellular-like life forms may exist in extraterrestrial environments such as the Martian surface where massive UV radiation exists.

For more information and participation instructions visit: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/seminars/detail/205 . Participation requires only an Internet connection and a browser.

NAI Director's Discretionary Fund 2012

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) is accepting proposals to the 2012 NAI Director's Discretionary Fund (DDF).

Priority in selection for the NAI 2012 DDF will be given to proposals that are characterized by one or more of the following:

* Integrates the research of and realizes synergies among the current NAI teams
* Expands the scope of NAI research (and the NAI community) in innovative ways, accepting some risk in return for high pay-off potential
* Responds in a timely way to new scientific results or programmatic opportunities
* Develops connections between astrobiology research and other NASA science programs, particularly NASA's Earth Science Program - see, http://nasascience.nasa.gov/earth-science
* Directly supports flight programs, particularly through instrument development
* Addresses questions at the intersection of the science of astrobiology and its humanistic aspects, particularly its societal implications;
* Promotes collaborations between US researchers and NAI's international partners;
* Uses funding particularly effectively, for example through leveraging or building on past investments;
* Supports early career investigators

Schedule: Proposals will be accepted at any time until June 30, 2012.

For more information: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/ddf-2012

Astrobiology Science News 10 April 2012

The probability is investigated that the meteorites originating on Earth are transferred to other planets in our Solar System and to extra solar planets. We take the collisional Chicxulub crater event, and material that was ejected as an example of Earth-origin meteors.

If we assume the appropriate size of the meteorites as 1cm in diameter, the number of meteorites to reach the exoplanet system (further than 20 ly) would be much greater than one. We have followed the ejection and capture rates estimated by Melosh (2003) and the discussion by Wallis and Wickramasinghe (2004). If we consider the possibility that the fragmented ejecta (smaller than 1cm) are accreted to comets and other icy bodies, then buried fertile material could make the interstellar journey throughout Galaxy. If life forms inside remain viable, this would be evidence of life from Earth seeding other planets.

We also estimate the transfer velocity of the micro-organisms in the interstellar space. In some assumptions, it could be estimated that, if life has originated $10^{10}$\ years ago anywhere in our Galaxy as theorized by Joseph and Schild (2010a, b), it will have since propagated throughout our Galaxy and could have arrived on Earth by 4.6 billion years ago. Organisms disperse.

Tetsuya Hara, Kazuma Takagi, Daigo Kajiura
(Submitted on 8 Apr 2012)

Comments: 8 pages
Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Journal reference: Journal of Cosmology, 7(2010), 1731
Cite as: arXiv:1204.1719v1 [astro-ph.EP]
Submission history
From: Tetsuya Hara [view email]
[v1] Sun, 8 Apr 2012 08:23:30 GMT (9kb)

One of the main drivers of planetary exploration is the search for life beyond Earth. A number of extraterrestrial targets, including Mars and the moons Europa and Titan, have been identified by NASA as having the potential to host life or to provide valuable insight for researchers and scientists into the conditions that may have been present on Earth when life started.

The Canadian Astrobiology Network (CAN), centered at Western University, is a network of institutions and researchers across Canada that is actively engaged in this type of astrobiological research and effective immediately, CAN has been elevated to affiliate status within the NASA Astrobiology Network.

"Canada possesses unique expertise and analogue sites relevant to astrobiology, and Canadian researchers have a long history of close collaboration with American colleagues," says Western Earth Sciences professor and CAN chair Neil Banerjee. "This partnership with the NASA Astrobiology Institute will strengthen existing ties, facilitate the establishment of new collaborations, and enhance training opportunities for both Canadian and American researchers and students."

CAN builds on the Canadian Astrobiology Training Program- a six-year, $1.5 million program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada through the Collaborative Research and Training Program. The goal of CAN is to foster collaboration and integration between Canadian scientists and NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) partner institutions in the United States and around the world.

"Western has developed a strong research presence in planetary science and hosts Canada's only graduate program in planetary science, which is critical for training the next generation of astrobiologists," says Gordon Osinski, Acting Chair at Western's Centre for Planetary Science & Exploration. "Western is also home to world-class analytical facilities. Together, with the outstanding facilities available at other CAN affiliates, this will enable cutting-edge research partnerships with NAI."

MEDIA CONTACT: Jeff Renaud, Senior Media Relations Officer, 519-520-7281, jrenaud9@uwo.ca