August 2012

With support from the NASA Astrobiology Program, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a new bacterial gene that could provide clues about how life survives in some of Earth's most extreme environments.

The gene codes for a protein, named HpnR, that is responsible for producing bacterial lipids known as 3-methylhopanoids. These lipids could help prepare nutrient-starved microbes to make a sudden appearance in nature when conditions are favorable. It allows the organisms to survive in extreme, oxygen-depleted environments until food -- such as methane and the oxygen needed to metabolize it -- become available.

The lipid produced by the HpnR protein may also be used as a biomarker in rock layers to identify dramatic changes in oxygen levels throughout Earth's history.

A team of Penn State University astronomers has obtained very precise measurements of a pair of stars that are orbited by a planet - like the binary system of the fictional planet Tatooine from the movie Star Wars. The orbits of the stars and planet in the system, named Kepler-16, are aligned so that they eclipse or transit each other when observed from Earth. The new measurements will aid astronomers in understanding how stars and planetary systems form. The data was obtained with the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory and provides an important independent test of a new technique for measuring masses from Kepler spacecraft data.

A preprint of the paper is online at Funding for this research was provided by the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center, and the National Science Foundation. [Source: NAI]

The NASA Exoplanet Science Institute announces the 2013 Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and solicits applications for fellowships to begin in the fall of 2013. The application deadline is Thursday, November 1, 2012.

The Sagan Fellowships will support outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration program. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Sagan Fellowships are joined by two other NASA astrophysics theme-based fellowship programs: the Einstein Fellowship Program which supports the Physics of the Cosmos research, and the Hubble Fellowship Program which supports Cosmic Origins research.

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In the spirit of dedication to the growth of young scientists and engineers embodied by Gerald Soffen throughout his life, the Dr. Gerald A. Soffen Memorial Fund for the Advancement of Space Science Education offers Student Travel Grants. The Travel Grants are awarded to students pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees in aerospace-related sciences or engineering fields (astrobiology, astronomy, earth and space science, engineering, etc.) to attend a meeting at which they will present their research.

THE NEXT APPLICATION OPPORTUNITY IS: OCTOBER 2012 The electronic application can be accessed at [Source: NAI]

The Astrobiology Program Student Research Travel Awards offer research-related travel support for undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Applicants are encouraged to use these resources to circulate among two or more laboratories supported by the NASA Astrobiology Program (ASTEP, ASTID, Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology or the NAI), however any travel that is critical for the applicant's research will be considered. Travelers must be formally affiliated with a U.S. institution. Requests are limited to $5,000, and are accepted with deadlines of April 1 and October 1. [Source: NAI]

Using combined data from a trio of orbiting X-ray telescopes, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Japan-led Suzaku satellite, astronomers have obtained a rare glimpse of the powerful phenomena that accompany a still-forming star. A new study based on these observations indicates that intense magnetic fields drive torrents of gas into the stellar surface, where they heat large areas to millions of degrees. X-rays emitted by these hot spots betray the newborn star's rapid rotation. [Source: NAI]

Scientists at Syracuse University - part of NAI's team at RPI - report new information about the history of water on Mars in the current issue of Planetary and Space Science. Focused on the hematite spherules known as the "blueberries" discovered by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in 2004, the study suggests that ages measured using the relative abundances of uranium, thorium, and helium in the blueberries could yield the time that has passed since water last wetted the sediments. [Source: NAI]

A new study, supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, suggests that meteorites and their parent asteroids are the most-likely sources of water on Earth. The research led by the Carnegie Institution for Science's Conel Alexander indicates that these rocks from space were the sources of early Earth's volatile elements -- which include hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon -- and possibly organic material. Understanding if and how volatile elements were delivered to the early Earth is important in determining the origins of both water and life on our planet. This work was partially funded by NASA Cosmochemistry, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Carnegie Institution of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the W.M. Keck Foundation, and the UK Cosmochemical Analysis Network. [Source: NAI]

Talks presented at the Astrobiology Science Conference 2012 are now available at You'll find the Adobe Connect recordings and abstracts organized on par with the AbSciCon Program. For any queries, contact us at @ [Source: NAI]

Please join the NASA Astrobiology Program in congratulating five scientists on their recent awards and accolades! Sue Brantley from Penn State was elected into the National Academy of Sciences in May, 2012; Dave Des Marais will receive the 2012 Alfred Treibs Award from the Geochemcial Society for achievements in organic chemistry; Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute received the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in May, 2012 given to outstanding early career scientists in Germany; Sara Seager from MIT was awarded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences from Tel Aviv University in June, 2012 for her brilliant theoretical studies, including analysis of the atmospheres and internal compositions of extra-solar planets; and Jim Kasting was awarded the Evan Pugh Professorship at Penn State, given to faculty members who are nationally or internationally acknowledged leaders in their fields of research or creative activity, have demonstrated significant leadership in raising the standards of the University with respect to teaching, research or creativity, and service, and demonstrate excellent teaching skills with undergraduate and graduate students who have subsequently achieved distinction in their field. [Source: NAI]