Tag: nasa astrobiology institute

Guiding Our Search for Life on Other Earths

The James Webb Telescope

Excerpt from space.com

A telescope will soon allow astronomers to probe the atmosphere of Earthlike exoplanets for signs of life. To prepare, astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger and her team are modeling the atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds of potential alien worlds. Here's how:
The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2018, will usher a new era in our search for life beyond Earth. With its 6.5-meter mirror, the long-awaited successor to Hubble will be large enough to detect potential biosignatures in the atmosphere of Earthlike planets orbiting nearby stars.
And we may soon find a treasure-trove of such worlds. The forthcoming exoplanet hunter TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), set to launch in 2017, will scout the entire sky for planetary systems close to ours. (The current Kepler mission focuses on more distant stars, between 600 and 3,000 light-years from Earth.) 

Astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger

While TESS will allow for the brief detection of new planets, the larger James Webb will follow up on select candidates and provide clues about their atmospheric composition. But the work will be difficult and require a lot of telescope time.
"We're expecting to find thousands of new planets with TESS, so we'll need to select our best targets for follow-up study with the Webb telescope," says Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer at Cornell University and co-investigator on the TESS team.
To prepare, Kaltenegger and her team at Cornell's Institute for Pale Blue Dots are building a database of atmospheric fingerprints for hundreds of potential alien worlds. The models will then be used as "ID cards" to guide the study of exoplanet atmospheres with the Webb and other future large telescopes.
Kaltenegger described her approach in a talk for the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Director Seminar Series last December.
"For the first time in human history, we have the technology to find and characterize other worlds," she says. "And there's a lot to learn."

Detecting life from space  

In its 1990 flyby of Earth, the Galileo spacecraft took a spectrum of sunlight filtered through our planet's atmosphere. In a 1993 paper in the journal Nature, astronomer Carl Sagan analyzed that data and found a large amount of oxygen together with methane — a telltale sign of life on Earth. These observations established a control experiment for the search of extraterrestrial life by modern spacecraft.
"The spectrum of a planet is like a chemical fingerprint," Kaltenegger says. "This gives us the key to explore alien worlds light years away."
Current telescopes have picked up the spectra of giant, Jupiter-like exoplanets. But the telescopes are not large enough to do so for smaller, Earth-like worlds. The James Webb telescope will be our first shot at studying the atmospheres of these potentially habitable worlds.
Some forthcoming ground-based telescopes — including the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), planned for completion in 2020, and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), scheduled for first light in 2024 — may also be able to contribute to that task. [The Largest Telescopes on Earth: How They Compare]
And with the expected discovery by TESS of thousands of nearby exoplanets, the James Webb and other large telescopes will have plenty of potential targets to study. Another forthcoming planet hunter, the Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), a planned European Space Agency mission scheduled for launch around 2022-2024, will contribute even more candidates.
However, observation time for follow-up studies will be costly and limited.
"It will take hundreds of hours of observation to see atmospheric signatures with the Webb telescope," Kaltenegger says. "So we'll have to pick our targets carefully."

Giant Magellan Telescope
Set to see its first light in 2021, The Giant Magellan Telescope will be the world’s largest telescope.

Getting a head start

To guide that process, Kaltenegger and her team are putting together a database of atmospheric fingerprints of potential alien worlds. "The models are tools that can teach us how to observe and help us prioritize targets," she says.
To start, they have modeled the chemical fingerprint of Earth over geological time. Our planet's atmosphere has evolved over time, with different life forms producing and consuming various gases. These models may give astronomers some insight into a planet's evolutionary stage.
Other models take into consideration the effects of a host of factors on the chemical signatures — including water, clouds, atmospheric thickness, geological cycles, brightness of the parent star, and even the presence of different extremophiles.
"It's important to do this wide range of modeling right now," Kaltenegger said, "so we're not too startled if we detect something unexpected. A wide parameter space can allow us to figure out if we might have a combination of these environments."
She added: "It can also help us refine our modeling as fast as possible, and decide if more measurements are needed while the telescope is still in space. It's basically a stepping-stone, so we don't have to wait until we get our first measurements to understand what we are seeing. Still, we'll likely find things we never thought about in the first place."

A new research center

The spectral database is one of the main projects undertaken at the Institute for Pale Blue Dots, a new interdisciplinary research center founded in 2014 by Kaltenegger. The official inauguration will be held on May 9, 2015.
"The crux of the institute is the characterization of rocky, Earth-like planets in the habitable zone of nearby stars," Kaltenergger said. "It's a very interdisciplinary effort with people from astronomy, geology, atmospheric modeling, and hopefully biology."
She added: "One of the goal is to better understand what makes a planet a life-friendly habitat, and how we can detect that from light years away. We're on the verge of discovering other pale blue dots. And with Sagan's legacy, Cornell University is a really great home for an institute like that."

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Scientists discover organism that hasn’t evolved in more than 2 billion years

Nonevolving bacteria
These sulfur bacteria haven't evolved for billions of years.
Credit: UCLA Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life

Excerpt from natmonitor.com
By Justin Beach

If there was a Guinness World Record for not evolving, it would be held by a sulfur-cycling microorganism found off the course of Australia. According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have not evolved in any way in more than two billion years and have survived five mass extinction events.
According to the researchers behind the paper, the lack of evolution actually supports Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
The researchers examined the microorganisms, which are too small to see with the naked eye, in samples of rocks from the coastal waters of Western Australia. Next they examined samples of the same bacteria from the same region in rocks 2.3 billion years old. Both sets of bacteria are indistinguishable from modern sulfur bacteria found off the coast of Chile.

“It seems astounding that life has not evolved for more than 2 billion years — nearly half the history of the Earth. Given that evolution is a fact, this lack of evolution needs to be explained,” said J. William Schopf, a UCLA professor of earth, planetary and space sciences in the UCLA College who was the study’s lead author in a statement.
Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution might be tempted to jump on this discovery as proof that Darwin was wrong, but that would be a mistake.
Darwin’s work focused more on species that changed, rather than species that didn’t. However, there is nothing in Darwin’s work that states that a successful species that has found it’s niche in an ecosystem has to change. Unless there is change in the ecosystem or competition for resources there would be no reason for change.
“The rule of biology is not to evolve unless the physical or biological environment changes, which is consistent with Darwin. These microorganisms are well-adapted to their simple, very stable physical and biological environment. If they were in an environment that did not change but they nevertheless evolved, that would have shown that our understanding of Darwinian evolution was seriously flawed.” said Schopf, who also is director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life.
It is likely that there were genetic mutations in the organisms. Mutations are fairly random and happen in all species, but unless those mutations are improvements that help the species function better in the environment, they usually do not get passed on.
Schopf said that the findings provide further proof that Darwin’s ideas were right.
The oldest fossils analyzed for the study date back to the Great Oxidation Event. This event, which occurred between 2.2 and 2.4 billion years ago, saw a substantial increase in Earth’s oxygen levels. That period also saw an increase in sulfates and nitrates, which is all that the microorganisms would have needed to survive and reproduce.
Shopf and his team used Raman spectroscopy, which allows scientists to examine the composition and chemistry of rocks as well as confocal laser scary microscopy to generate 3-D images of fossils embedded in rock.
The research was funded by NASA Astrobiology Institute, in the hope that it will help the space agency to find life elsewhere.

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NASA Injects New Funds Into Search for Origins of Life

Excerpt from

In a new round of funding announced on Monday, NASA is allocating $50 million to 7 astrobiology research groups in the US to tackle these questions.

The grants will cover 5 years of study and will average $8 million per research group...

The astrobiology teams are based at 3 NASA institutions (Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.), 3 universities (University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California, Riverside and the University of Montana in Missoula) and at The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at Mountain View, Calif...

“The intellectual scope of astrobiology is vast, from understanding how our planet went from lifeless to living, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth’s harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life,” said Mary Voytek, director, astrobiology program, NASA Headquarters. “The new teams cover that breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI (NASA Astrobiology Institute), they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances.”

These 7 new teams join 5 existing NAI teams at the University of Washington in Seattle; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

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