Movers and Shakers
New Astrobiology Teams
NASA has announced that twelve new teams would join the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), a national and international research consortium that studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe.
|The haze of an atmospheric layer on Saturn’s moon, Titan. With an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s, and composed of many biochemically interesting molecules (methane, hydrogen and carbon), Titan’s rich chemistry will continue to interest astrobiologists as they look forward to landing a probe on its surface in 2004-5. Credit: Voyager Project, JPL, NASA|
"The NAI successfully reached an important milestone today with the competition for the original NAI membership," said Dr. Edward Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator of space science. "The quality of the proposals and stiff competition demonstrated the scientific community’s enthusiasm for the Astrobiology Institute."
The new team lead institutions, principal investigators and the titles of their proposed research are:
- Carnegie Institution of Washington: Dr. Sean Solomon, "Astrobiological Pathways: From the Interstellar Medium, Through Planetary Systems, to the Emergence and Detection of Life".
- Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.: Prof. Lisa Pratt, "Indiana-Princeton-Tennessee Astrobiology Institute: Detection of Biosustainable Energy and Nutrient Cycling in the Deep Subsurface of Earth and Mars"
- Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass.: Dr. Mitchell Sogin, "From Early Biospheric Metabolisms to the Evolution of Complex Systems"
- SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif.: Prof. Christopher Chyba, "Planetary Biology, Evolution and Intelligence"
- NASA Ames Research Center: Dr. David DesMarais, "Linking Our Origins to Our Future"
- NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.: Dr. Michael Mumma, "Origin and Evolution of Organics in Planetary Systems"
- Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.: Prof. Hiroshi Ohmoto, "Evolution of a Habitable Planet"
- University of Arizona, Tucson: Prof. Neville Woolf, "An Astronomical Search for the Essential Ingredients for Life: Placing our Habitable System in Context"
- University of California at Los Angeles: Prof. Edward Young, "From Stars to Genes: An Integrated Study of the Prospects for Life in the Cosmos"
- University of California at Berkeley: Prof. Jillian Banfield, "BIOspheres of Mars: Ancient and Recent Studies"
- University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.: Prof. Bruce Jakosky, "University of Colorado Center for Astrobiology"
- University of Hawaii, Manoa: Prof. Karen Meech, "The Origin, History, and Distribution of Water and its Relation to Life in the Universe"
Established in July 1998, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) is a virtual organization composed of NASA field centers, universities and research organizations that collaborate to study the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
|The icy cracks of Jupiter’s moon Europa continue to intrigue astrobiologists. The white sheen is likely frost and the moon’s heat source is a combination of an underground ocean and tidal heating under the strong gravitational pull of Jupiter. Credit: Galileo Project, JPL, NASA|
The twelve newly selected teams, of which six are founding members, join four NAI lead teams selected in 2001. The institutional awards begin in fall 2003, when current agreements with the NAI’s eleven founding lead teams conclude. NAI team awards are for five years, with annual reviews, at an average annual funding level of $1 million.
Funding supports interdisciplinary research in conjunction with professional, educational and public outreach activities, coordinated through NAI’s offices at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "With this group of 16 teams, NAI’s efforts reach from the Earth’s deep subsurface to the stars," said Dr. Rosalind Grymes, acting director of the NAI at NASA Ames. "We look to the near-term future of solar system exploration as well as to the distant past of planet Earth," she said.
The past few years have witnessed the discovery of planets around other stars, strong circumstantial evidence for a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, controversial claims for biological activity in a martian meteorite, the discovery of life in extreme terrestrial environments, and a genuine revolution in our understanding and manipulation of the genetic mechanisms of the living cell.
"This is an ongoing experiment in collaboration across disciplines and distance," said Dr. Michael Meyer, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington.
Significant scientific advances have occurred in the past 5 years in addressing some of the questions identified in the astrobiology roadmap. A few example areas that have borne particular fruit, with example references include the following:
- Analysis of complex organic chemistry in interstellar clouds of gas and dust that give rise to new stars and solar systems;
- Direct study of extrasolar giant planets through transits and spectra;
- Discovery that living organisms, normally found on Earth’s surface, can survive at extreme pressure;
- Evidence from geologic features that liquid water once flowed on the surface of the planet Mars;
- Indications from magnetic field geometry that liquid water likely exists today below the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa;
- Ground-based studies of Titan indicating both temporal and spatial variability, and the presence of organic molecules;
- Chemical-isotopic hints that microbial life on Earth existed 3.9 billion years ago, almost to the period of early heavy cometary bombardment;
- Evidence that liquid water existed in the crust of the Earth some 4.3 billion years ago;
- Elucidation of the detailed history of evolution and the phylogenetic relationships among organisms; and
- In vitro evolution experiments that have come close to developing self-replicating systems in the laboratory.
The mix of flight programs, which run from Discovery missions (e.g., Mars Pathfinder, Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, and Stardust) through to flagship mission (e.g., Galileo and Cassini), provides a varied tapestry of flight-preparation times, risks, and rewards.
Notable among these has been the spectacular exploration of the outer solar system, commencing with the Pioneer missions, through the Voyager discoveries about the satellite systems of the giant planets, and culminating in the Galileo discoveries about Europa and the promise of Cassini discoveries at Saturn.