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Astrobiology (journal): June 2009


Cosmic rays represent one of the most fascinating research themes in modern astronomy and physics. Significant progress is being made toward an understanding of the astrophysics of the sources of cosmic rays and the physics of interactions in the ultrahigh-energy range. This is possible because several new experiments in these areas have been initiated. Cosmic rays may hold answers to a great number of fundamental questions, but they also shape our natural habitat and influence the radiation environment of our planet Earth. The importance of the study of cosmic rays has been acknowledged in many fields, including space weather science and astrobiology.

A central question of astrobiology concerns the origin and distribution of life in the Universe. For this reason, astrobiology can be considered to fall within the science called transitional biology. If we accept that life originated by a process of prebiotic chemical evolution, the next question concerns the nature of the transitional pathway from inanimate chemical systems to the first forms of life on Earth. These possible transitional states are the subject matter of transitional biology as a discipline.

The importance of hypersaline environments over geological time, the discovery of similar habitats on Mars, and the importance of methane as a biosignature gas combine to compel an understanding of the factors important in controlling methane released from hypersaline microbial mat environments. To further this understanding, changes in stable carbon isotopes of methane and possible methanogenic substrates in microbial mat communities were investigated as a function of salinity here on Earth. Microbial mats were sampled from four different field sites located within salterns in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Salinities ranged from 50 to 106 parts per thousand (ppt).

Once it was established that the spaceflight environment was not a drastic impediment to plant growth, a remaining space biology question was whether long-term spaceflight exposure could cause changes in subsequent generations, even if they were returned to a normal Earth environment. In this study, we used a genomic approach to address this question. We tested whether changes in gene expression patterns occur in wheat plants that are several generations removed from growth in space, compared to wheat plants with no spaceflight exposure in their lineage. Wheat flown on Mir for 167 days in 1991 formed viable seeds back on Earth.

We have used the Solar Tower Atmospheric Cherenkov Effect Experiment (STACEE) high-energy gamma-ray detector to look for fast blue-green laser pulses from the vicinity of 187 stars. The STACEE detector offers unprecedented light-collecting capability for the detection of nanosecond pulses from such lasers. We estimate STACEE's sensitivity to be approximately 10photons/m2 at a wavelength of 420nm.

With the assumption that future attempts to explore our Solar System for life will be limited by economic constraints, we have formulated a series of principles to guide future searches: (1) the discovery of life that has originated independently of our own would have greater significance than evidence for panspermia; (2) an unambiguous identification of living beings (or the fully preserved, intact remains of such beings) is more desirable than the discovery of markers or fossils that would inform us of the presence of life but not its composition; (3) we should initially seek carbon-based life that employs a set of monomers and polymers substantially different than our own, which would effectively balance the need for ease of detection with that of establishing a separate origin; (4) a "follow-the-carbon" strategy appears optimal for locating such alternative carbon-based life.