Archives

May 2013


Despite satellite images that show vast networks of channels, past Mars rover missions have shown limited evidence for flowing water on Mars.

Until recently, one of the ultimate mysteries of the universe -- how many civilizations may exist on planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way Galaxy -- relied on the possibility of detecting intelligent beings by radio signals. Now a team of astronomers, engineers, and physicists from the University of Hawaii, the University of Freiburg, and elsewhere has proposed a new and powerful technique to search for intelligent life.

When Catherine La Farge threads her way through the recently exposed terrain left behind by retreating glaciers, she looks at the ancient plant remains a lot closer than most. Now, her careful scrutiny has revealed a startling reawakening of long-dormant plants known as bryophytes.

The Antarctic continental ice cap came into existence during the Oligocene epoch, some 33.6 million years ago, according to data from an international expedition led by the Andalusian Institute of Earth Sciences (IACT)--a Spanish National Research Council-University of Granada joint centre. These findings, based on information contained in ice sediments from different depths, have recently been published in the journal Science.

The widespread disappearance of stromatolites, the earliest visible manifestation of life on Earth, may have been driven by single-celled organisms called foraminifera.

Recently the Brazilian Network of Astrobiology (Rede Brasileira de Astrobiologia - RBA) was created. Linked to the Research Unit in Astrobiology (NAP-Astrobio) of the Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP). NAP-Astrobio is an international partner of important institutions in the area, such as the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the European Astrobiology Networks Association (EANA).

Astrochemistry aims at studying chemical processes in astronomical environments. This discipline -- located at the crossroad between astrophysics and chemistry -- is rapidly evolving and explores the issue of the formation of molecules of increasing complexity in particular physical conditions that deviate significantly from those frequently encountered in chemistry laboratories. The main goal of this paper is to provide an overview of this discipline.

Smartphone Becomes a Tricorder

Researchers and physicians in the field could soon run on-the-spot tests for environmental toxins, medical diagnostics, food safety and more with their smartphones. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers have developed a cradle and app for the iPhone that uses the phone's built-in camera and processing power as a biosensor to detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules.

Saturn's moon Titan might be in for some wild weather as it heads into its spring and summer, if two new models are correct. Scientists think that as the seasons change in Titan's northern hemisphere, waves could ripple across the moon's hydrocarbon seas, and hurricanes could begin to swirl over these areas, too.

The temperature in the permafrost on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high Arctic is nearly as cold as that of the surface of Mars. So the recent discovery by a McGill University led team of scientists of a bacterium that is able to thrive at -15oC, the coldest temperature ever reported for bacterial growth, is exciting.

For centuries, humans have pondered what life on other planets beyond our solar system might be like. With the launch of the Kepler spacecraft in 2009 we now have evidence for the widespread existence of such planets.

Kepler Mission Manager Update

Following the apparent failure of reaction wheel 4 on May 11, 2013, engineers were successful at transitioning the spacecraft from a Thruster-Controlled Safe Mode to Point Rest State at approximately 3:30 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. The spacecraft has remained safe and stable in this attitude and is no longer considered to be in a critical situation.

The Antiquity of Metalloenzymes

Astrobiologists funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute have uncovered new information about the role of metalloenzymes in the origins of life. Metalloenzymes are enzymes where metals act as a co-factor or are incorporated as part of the molecule. Phylogenetic analysis of metalloenzymes involved in chemiosmosis suggests that they may have been present in the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) of life on Earth.

Mars Icebreaker Life Mission

Missions to Mars have only scratched its surface. To go deeper, scientists are proposing a spacecraft that can drill into the Red Planet to potentially find signs of life.

Astrobiology Daily News 15 May 2013

Untangling The Tree of Life on Earth

Two recent high-profile phylogenetic studies reached conflicting conclusions about whether snail's closest relatives are bivalves or an enigmatic group called tusk shells. Vanderbilt phylogeneticists suggest that the cause of this conflict is that the three groups diverged rapidly a long time ago. Credit: Antonis Rokas, Vanderbilt University

Are we alone in the universe? How did life begin? Will the human civilization expand out into the solar system and beyond? How can we act as curators of our home planet to achieve long-term sustainability? As astrobiologists we recognize these scientific and societal questions as some of the greatest of our time.

Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center now have the capability to systematically investigate the molecular evolution of cosmic carbon. For the first time, these scientists are able to automatically interpret previously unknown infrared emissions from space that come from surprisingly complex organic molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are abundant and important across the universe.

The Instrument Concepts for Europa Exploration (ICEE) Program supports the advanced development of spacecraft-based instruments for Europa exploration. The goal of the program is to mature and reduce the technical risk of instruments for a potential future Europa mission to the point where they may be proposed in response to a future flight announcement of opportunity (AO) without additional extensive technology development.

Please join us for the NAI Early Earth Focus Group Workshop Without Walls on "The Hadean Earth-Moon System". The workshop is aimed at providing the most up-to-date science on the first billion years' history of the Earth-Moon system, from solar system formation at 4.567 Ga to the widespread preservation of crustal rocks at 3.5 Ga to evidence for life preserved within those rocks.

Detecting alien worlds presents a significant challenge since they are small, faint, and close to their stars. The two most prolific techniques for finding exoplanets are radial velocity (looking for wobbling stars) and transits (looking for dimming stars). A team at Tel Aviv University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has just discovered an exoplanet using a new method that relies on Einstein's special theory of relativity.

A Comparative Climatology Symposium was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Tuesday, May 7. The symposium focused on new approaches to climate research by highlighting the similarities and contrasts between the environments of the terrestrial planets Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn's smoggy moon Titan. The symposium also included discussions about exoplanets, the Sun, and past, present and future space missions.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found the building blocks for Earth-sized planets in an unlikely place: the atmospheres of a pair of burned-out stars called white dwarfs.

The water found on the moon, like that on Earth, came from small meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites in the first 100 million years or so after the solar system formed, researchers from Brown and Case Western Reserve universities and Carnegie Institution of Washington have found.

The purpose of the hearing is to review the recent discovery of three super-Earth sized planets by the NASA's Kepler space telescope. The hearing will also assess the state of exoplanet surveying, characterization, and research; NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program; National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Science; as well as coordination within the government and with external partners. NASA and NSF both contribute to the search for exoplanets.

In fossil remnants of iron-loving bacteria, researchers of the Cluster of Excellence Origin and Structure of the Universe at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), found a radioactive iron isotope that they trace back to a supernova in our cosmic neighborhood. This is the first proven biological signature of a starburst on our earth.

Spitzer Studies Hot Jupiters

Our galaxy is teeming with a wild variety of planets. In addition to our solar system's eight near-and-dear planets, there are more than 800 so-called exoplanets known to circle stars beyond our sun. One of the first "species" of exoplanets to be discovered is the hot Jupiters, also known as roasters. These are gas giants like Jupiters, but they orbit closely to their stars, blistering under the heat.

With cold temperatures, low humidity and high levels of ultraviolet radiation, conditions 10 kilometers above Earth's surface may seem inhospitable. But, next time you're flying consider this: The air outside your airplane window may be filled with microscopic life that affects everything from weather and climate to the distribution of pathogens around the planet.

Astrobiology Daily News 6 May 2013

Observational surveys for extrasolar planets probe the diverse outcomes of planet formation and evolution. These surveys measure the frequency of planets with different masses, sizes, orbital characteristics, and host star properties. Small planets between the sizes of Earth and Neptune substantially outnumber Jupiter-sized planets.

Keith's note: NASA has cancelled the Second Kepler Science Conference, which was to be held at NASA Ames on November 4-8, 2013. This cancellation is now posted on the Kepler Mission web site. I am told that the organizers hope to postpone this meeting and hold it again at NASA Ames, perhaps one year later, i.e., November 2014, assuming that the sequestration restrictions on NASA will have been lifted by then.

In an effort to determine if conditions were ever right on Mars to sustain life, a team of scientists, including a Michigan State University professor, has examined a meteorite that formed on the red planet more than a billion years ago. And although this team's work is not specifically solving the mystery, it is laying the groundwork for future researchers to answer this age-old question.

The symposium will highlight the similarities and contrasts between the environments of the terrestrial planets: Venus, Earth, Mars, and Titan. Presentations will cover current Earth climate models, Earth observation, past and current Venus missions (as a laboratory for Earth climate), observational studies of the Terrestrial planets (exoplanets), and the influence of the Sun on climate. The Symposium will conclude with a panel discussion and Q/A.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has named Steven J. Dick as the second Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. The chair is a joint project between the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Kluge Center.