Space Science @ Ames features research in infrared astrophysics, laboratory astrophysics, extrasolar planets, planetary sciences, exobiology, and astrobiology. For more information, view details.
Earth Science @ Ames features basic and applied research in atmospheric and biospheric sciences, and conducts airborne science campaigns.
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BioSciences @ Ames features research in fundamental space biology, and provides engineering and payload development for the International Space Station.
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Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
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Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) addresses basic and applied scientific questions fundamental to understanding the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, and the near space environments of these target bodies.
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Will We Know Life When We See It? NASA-led Group Takes Stock of the Science
June 25, 2018
In the last decade we have discovered thousands of planets outside our solar system and have learned that rocky, temperate worlds are numerous in our galaxy. The next step will involve asking even bigger questions. Could some of these planets host life? And if so, will we be able to recognize life elsewhere if we see it?
Life can leave "fingerprints" of its presence in the atmosphere and on the surface of a planet. These potential signs of life, or biosignatures, can be detected with telescopes. Credits: NASA/Aaron Gronstal
A group of leading researchers in astronomy, biology and geology have come together under NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS, to take stock of our knowledge in the search for life on distant planets and to lay the groundwork for moving the related sciences forward.
“We’re moving from theorizing about life elsewhere in our galaxy to a robust science that will eventually give us the answer we seek to that profound question: Are we alone?” said Martin Still, NASA exoplanet scientist at Headquarters, Washington.
Abiotic processes can fool us into thinking a barren planet is alive. Rather than measuring a single characteristic of a planet, we should consider a suite of traits to build the case for life. Credits: NASA/Aaron Gronstal
In a set of five review papers published last week in the scientific journal Astrobiology, NExSS scientists took an inventory of the most promising signs of life, called biosignatures. They considered how to interpret the presence of biosignatures, should we detect them on distant worlds. A primary concern is ensuring the science is strong enough to distinguish a living world from a barren planet masquerading as one.
The assessment comes as a new generation of space and ground-based telescopes are in development. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will characterize the atmospheres of some of the first small, rocky planets. Other observatories— such as the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope, both in Chile— are planning to carry sophisticated instruments capable of detecting the first biosignatures on faraway worlds.
Through their work with NExSS, scientists aim to identify the instruments needed to detect potential life for future NASA flagship missions. The detection of atmospheric signatures of a few potentially habitable planets may possibly come before 2030, although whether the planets are truly habitable or have life will require more in-depth study.
Since we won’t be able to visit distant planets and collect samples anytime soon, the light that a telescope observes will be all we have in the search for life outside our solar system. Telescopes can examine the light reflecting off a distant world to show us the kinds of gases in the atmosphere and their "seasonal" variations, as well as colors like green that could indicate life.
Since the data we collect from planets will be limited, scientists will quantify how likely a planet has life based on all the available evidence. Follow-up observations are required for confirmation. Credits: NASA/Aaron Gronstal
These kinds of biosignatures can all be seen on our fertile Earth from space, but the new worlds we examine will differ significantly. For example, many of the promising planets we have found are around cooler stars, which emit light in the infrared spectrum, rather than our sun’s high emissions of visible-light.
“What does a living planet look like?” said Mary Parenteau, an astrobiologist and microbiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and a co-author. “We have to be open to the possibility that life may arise in many contexts in a galaxy with so many diverse worlds — perhaps with purple-colored life instead of the familiar green-dominated life forms on Earth, for example. That’s why we are considering a broad range of biosignatures.”
The scientists assert that oxygen — the gas produced by photosynthetic organisms on Earth — remains the most promising biosignature of life elsewhere, but it is not foolproof. Abiotic processes on a planet could also generate oxygen. Conversely, a planet lacking detectable levels of oxygen could still be alive — which was exactly the case of Earth before the global accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere.
“On early Earth, we wouldn’t be able to see oxygen, despite abundant life,” said Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of one of the papers. “Oxygen teaches us that seeing, or not seeing, a single biosignature is insufficient evidence for or against life — overall context matters.”
Rather than measuring a single characteristic, the NExSS scientists argue that we should be looking at a suite of traits. A planet must show itself capable of supporting life through its features, and those of its parent star.
The NExSS scientists will create a framework that can quantify how likely it is that a planet has life, based on all the available evidence. With the observation of many planets, scientists may begin to more broadly classify the “living worlds” that show common characteristics of life, versus the “non-living worlds.”
“We won’t have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to finding life elsewhere,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and a co-author. “What we will have is a high level of confidence that a planet appears alive for reasons that can only be explained by the presence of life.”
Last Updated: June 25, 2018
Editor: Sarah Loff
SOFIA Releases Call for Observing Proposals
June 19, 2018
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, released its call for observing proposals from the U.S. and international astronomical communities. Approximately 500 hours of observing time are available for flights in 2019. Proposals that will use SOFIA data to enable Ph.D. theses will also be supported. The deadline for submitting the Phase I proposals is September 7, 2018, at 9 p.m. PDT.
Details including full proposal guidelines are available: https://go.nasa.gov/2JVMz3n
The observatory’s position, above more than 99% of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, and its suite of highly-specialized instruments, make it ideally suited for use in studying astronomical objects and phenomena at wavelengths inaccessible to other observatories.
The above image shows SOFIA data tracing gas in the Omega nebula, or M17, layered over an image of the nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope. The energy from stars forming in the nebula changes its gas from atomic gas into ionized gas. This process also can destroy the materials needed to create future generations of stars. The SOFIA data give researchers an unobstructed view of these star formation processes, revealing ionized gas in the blue and green areas and atomic gas in the red.
SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703, in Palmdale, California.
Last Updated: June 19, 2018
Editor: Kassandra Bell
June 14, 2018
Micro-12 is a life science research mission that will investigate the effects of spaceflight on the physiology of Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a species of bacteria that has the potential to be a part of the next generation of biologically-based life support systems. The study is planned to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX-15 in June 2018.
This Scanning Electron Microscope image shows Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 bacteria. These bacteria are able to generate electric currents that can be conducted along nanowires extending from their cell membranes – visible in this photo as thin threads. Credits: NASA/John Hogan
Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 is a bacterium with a unique metabolism. While most organisms need oxygen for respiration in order to convert food into energy that can be used by cells, S. oneidensis MR-1 can use metals to facilitate this conversion instead. It can do this using nanowires – tiny extrusions that extend from its membrane and transport electrons out of the cell and to the metal surface – and generates electric currents in the process. This special electricity-generating ability means that S. oneidensis MR-1 could potentially be used to build bioelectrochemical systems that treat waste water, generate power, or synthesize useful chemicals. These abilities would be useful on Earth but may be especially useful in spacecraft, particularly for future missions to the Moon or Mars.
Although the unique abilities of S. oneidensis MR-1 show potential for practical use in space, currently there is little known about the effects of the space environment on this organism. Micro-12 will address this gap by characterizing the growth, physiology, and biofilm development of S. oneidensis MR-1 onboard the ISS. Once brought back to Earth, the Micro-12 samples will be analyzed to identify genes, environmental conditions, and other factors that could contribute to S. oneidensis MR-1’s success in the space environment.
Results from this experiment will generate fundamental information on the effects of microgravity and the space environment on Shewanella oneidensis MR-1. This ground work will provide a foundation for the work of scientists aiming to create bioelectrochemical systems for advanced life support in space and on Earth.
Payload Manager: Elizabeth M. Pane, NASA Ames Research Center
Project Scientist: Fathi Karouia, Ph.D., FILMSS, NASA Ames Research Center
Science Lead: Michael Dougherty, Ph.D., FILMSS, NASA Ames Research Center
Principal Investigator: John A. Hogan, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center
Co-Investigator: Adam Arkin, Ph.D., E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Co-Investigator: Adam Deutschbauer, Ph.D., E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Flight Implementation Specialist: Luiz Zea, Ph.D., BioServe Space Technologies
Last Updated: June 14, 2018
Editor: Yael Kovo
Icy Dunes on Pluto Reveal a Diverse and Dynamic Dwarf Planet
June 8, 2018
Newly discovered dunes on Pluto tell us the dwarf planet’s geology and atmosphere is far more dynamic than previously expected, with the winds of its thin and multi-layer atmosphere helping shape the landscape. Found near the mountains that encircle Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia plain, these formations appear to be quite young in geological terms, on the scale of decades or centuries old.
NASA New Horizons scientists found these evenly spaced ridges on Pluto’s surface using imagery from the 2015 flyby. The ridges appear to have formed out of particles of methane ice as small as grains of sand, arranged into dunes by wind from the nearby mountains.
Wind can create dunes through a process known as eolian transport, where winds move sediment by skipping, bouncing, rolling and sliding particles across the ground. However, the winds on Pluto aren’t strong enough on their own to loft these grains off the ground. But the process of sublimation – where ice turns straight into gas, without going through the liquid phase – also lifts particles and could dislodge the sediment carried by winds to form these methane rich dunes.
“The interesting, repeating patterns we see covering this part of Sputnik Planitia certainly resemble dunes,” said Jeffery Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, and author on a June 1 paper that appeared in Science. “But they might also be sublimation erosion patterns, or due to a combination of particle movement and sublimation erosion.”
The existence of young dune formations on Pluto tells us that all these complex systems are at play in this dynamic dwarf planet. The New Horizons data is showing a geologically vibrant surface, sparking continuous discussion among the scientific community.
“More research will help us pin down their origin,” said Moore. “Whatever they are, it’s clear Pluto is one of the most amazing and complex objects in our solar system.”
Author: Frank Tavares
Last Updated: June 11, 2018
Editor: Abigail Tabor
June 8, 2018
The Astronaut's Guide to Microbe Hitchhikers
On Earth, there is a close connection between microorganisms and humans. Although people often think of microbes as enemies to our health, humans actually depend on their presence to survive. They are found on all surfaces of the body, and there are tens of trillions of them that do us no harm. In fact, many are known to protect us, with beneficial roles that include digestion, stimulation of the immune system and protection from diseases.
When humans travel to the International Space Station, they don’t just bring themselves and their cargo – they also bring microbes into the station. Since the construction of the space station began in 1998, there have been more than two hundred missions to the station. With all the movement of people and goods, the station has become an environment of its own with a unique microbial population.
To better understand this environment, the Space Biosciences division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley is managing the Microbial Tracking research series. Each of the recent SpaceX commercial resupply missions to the station has delivered a new set of microbial sampling kits and brought samples back to Earth for analysis. These are analyzed to identify the types of microbes being found, the interactions between them, the development of microbial communities and any microbial effects on human health.
By taking multiple samples over time, researchers are able to see how the microbial population is changing. Some samples are collected on board the space station, and others are taken from the SpaceX spacecraft before launch for comparison. The findings from this research will help keep things running smoothly in space by determining the impact microbes have on the crew’s health. With this knowledge, NASA can work to develop ways of minimizing the hazards from microorganisms during long-duration crewed missions.
Microbial Tracking-1 was a three-part series characterizing airborne and surface microorganisms from specific locations aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016. Sampling on three different occasions occurred over a 15-month period, which allowed researchers to study the population living on the station over time.
Microbial Tracking-2 is following the populations of microbes sharing the International Space Station with the astronauts – including those on the crew themselves. This is the first time humans are being studied in the Microbial Tracking investigation, and four crew members have volunteered to participate. Samples are collected with a swab before, during and after spaceflight from various surfaces of the astronauts’ body, including the mouth, nose, forehead, armpit and navel. Environmental samples are also being collected from surface and air locations around the station. Viruses are being studied for the first time in the Microbial Tracking experiment series, in addition to bacteria and fungi.
Microbial Tracking-2 is studying the microorganisms present on the space station between June 2017 and late 2018.
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Last Updated: June 8, 2018
Editor: Abigail Tabor
May 24th, 2018
The Earth Venture Suborbital 2 (EVS-2) Atmospheric Tomography Mission (ATom) fourth and final deployment has concluded. The NASA DC-8 returned to its home base in Palmdale, CA on May 21. ATom studies the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gases and on chemically reactive gases in the atmosphere. Dave Jordan and Erin Czech of the Earth Science Project (ESPO) are the ATom Project Manager and Deputy Project Manager respectively with many ESPO Team members serving as site manager at various locations in the deployment route. The Meteorological Measurement System (MMS) led by Paul Bui and his team is part of the DC-8 instrument payload. For more ATom news: https://espo.nasa.gov/home/atom/
ATom Deputy Principal Investigator Michael Prather, University of California, Irvine, summarizes the ATom accomplishments:
“ATom has been an incredible odyssey, sampling the whole global atmosphere 4 times, almost pole-to-pole. We visited some of the most remote corners of the globe mapping out "where pollution goes to die." We have some amazing results documenting the pervasive human influence on the atmosphere in these far-flung places, as well as providing new basic atmospheric science on the life cycle of aerosol particles and on the photochemistry of the atmosphere.”
ATom Science Co-Investigator David Fahey, Director of the Chemical Science Division, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, praises the ESPO Team:
“Congratulations to the outstanding ESPO team. ATom has been logistically and scientifically successful beyond anything we imagined when writing the proposal a long time ago. ESPO makes it all look easy because the team is so committed to the mission and competent in all aspects of the effort.”
The NASA Earth Sciences Data and Information System Project has directed each Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) to establish and sponsor a User Working Group (UWG). The Land Processes DAAC UWG is responsible for providing consultation and recommendations covering a broad range of topics related to the DAAC systems, services, and capabilities. The group is responsible for representing the interests of the land remote sensing community in this process. The LP DAAC UWG will not be responsible for making decisions or implementing recommendations. The summer meeting of the UWG will take place May 30 and 31, 2018 Madison, WI. Dr. Dungan is a member of the UWG and will participate in this meeting. In addition, on Friday, June 1, she will visit the University of Wisconsin department of Forest Ecology & Environmental Studies, where Professor Mutlu Ozdogan's research team is supported by the NASA Earth Exchange, which Dr. Dungan manages.
James Podolske and Kent Shiffer have completed moving the Total Carbon Column Observing Network (TCCON) instrument from JPL to Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC). It is back in operation in AFRC. TCCON is a global network of ground-based Fourier Transform Spectrometers (FTS) that measure the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and other trace gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The AFRC-based TCCON FTS managed by Ames under the leadership of Laura Iraci was moved to JPL to assist in the thermal vacuum test of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3). OCO-3 will be placed on the International Space Station in 2019 for Earth observation of CO2. This same TCCON was used for a similar test with OCO-2 before its launch on Jul. 2, 2014. Data from OCO-2 have provided important perspectives on the role of carbon on Earth.
To prepare for the July 2018 National Research Council-Canada (NRC) Oil Sands Measurement Campaign (OSMC) Roy R. Johnson and Samuel LeBlanc (BAER) traveled to Ottawa, Canada to integrate 4STAR (Spectrometer for Sky-scanning, Sun-Tracking Atmospheric Research) on the CV-580 and trained the NRC personnel to operate the instrument as well as data processing. The short test flight was successful.
NRC’s use of 4STAR will complement NRC’s planned on-board instrumentation and will provide important information on trace gas concentrations and aerosol properties essential to the understanding of aerosol formation and evolution processes. Providing the 4STAR instrument to NRC benefits NASA’s Earth Science Division by broadening the spectrum of research aircraft the instrument has flown on, providing data to NASA for future scientific analysis, and providing data on the instrument’s use, which will enhance future performance analysis, techniques, and instrument calibration/validation.
Kepler Begins 18th Observing Campaign with a Focus on Star Clusters
May 23, 2018
On May 12, NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft Kepler began the 18th observing campaign of its extended mission, K2. For the next 82 days, Kepler will stare at clusters of stars, faraway galaxies and a handful of solar system objects, including comets, objects beyond Neptune and an asteroid closer to Earth. The Kepler spacecraft is expected to run out of fuel within several months.
Campaign 18 is a familiar patch of space as it’s approximately the same region of sky that Kepler observed during Campaign 5 in 2015. One of the advantages of observing a field over again is that planets outside the solar system, called exoplanets, may be found orbiting farther from their stars. Astronomers hope to not only discover new exoplanets during this campaign, but also to confirm candidates that were previously identified.
Open clusters are regions where stars formed at roughly the same age, including Messier 67 and Messier 44, otherwise known as Praesepe or the Beehive cluster. Home to six known exoplanets, the Praesepe cluster will be searched anew for objects that are transiting, or crossing, around these and other stars.
At approximately 800 million years old, the stars in Praesepe are in their teenage years compared to our Sun. Many of these youthful stars are active and have large spots that can reveal information about a star’s magnetic field, a fundamental component of a star that drives flaring and other activity that may have influence over habitability. By comparing brightness data collected in campaigns 18 and 5, scientists can learn more about how a star’s spots cycle over time.
At several billion years old, the Messier 67 cluster is much older and has many Sun-like stars. It is one of the best-studied open clusters in the sky. Astronomers will continue their studies of stellar astrophysics by analyzing Messier 67’s stars for changes in brightness. They will search for the signatures of exoplanets, observe the pulsations of evolved stars and measure the rotation rates of many other stars in the cluster.
Beyond these clusters, Kepler will observe blazars, the energetic nuclei of faraway galaxies with black holes in their centers. These objects propel jets of hot plasma toward Earth — though they are far too distant to affect us. The most notable of these targets is OJ 287, a system hosting two black holes in orbit around each other, one of which is 18 billion times the mass of the Sun!
Even closer to home, Kepler will look at solar system objects, including comets, trans-Neptunian objects and the near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis. This 1,000-foot chunk of rock will pass within 20,000 miles of Earth in the year 2029 — close but still comfortably far enough to not pose any danger to Earthlings.
NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Last Updated: May 30, 2018
Editor: Alison Hawkes
Kepler is a Discovery-class mission featuring a visible-light telescope designed to detect transiting planets around stars. It is expected to detect hundreds of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and will determine the fraction of stars with such terrestrial planets.
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SOFIA is an airborne observatory featuring a 2.5 m infrared telescope fitted aboard a 747 airplane. Flying state-of-the-art instrumentation at altitudes above 40,000 feet, the observatory will study astronomical phenomena in our Solar system, Galaxy and the nearby Universe.
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The International Space Station is now being utilized for science and engineering research. Ames conducts space biology experiments on ISS, while designing and developing the next generation of analytical laboratory hardware for ISS.
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