Recently in Astrobiology Category

Earth-Size Planet Found that Might Hold Liquid Water, University of Michigan

"In a dim and faraway solar system, astronomers have for the first time discovered a rocky, Earth-sized planet that might hold liquid water -- a necessary ingredient for life as we know it."

New Rocky Planet May Have Liquid Water, SFSU

"San Francisco State University astronomer Stephen Kane and an international team of researchers have announced the discovery of a new rocky planet that could potentially have liquid water on its surface."

NASA Hosts Media Teleconference to Announce Latest Kepler Discovery

"NASA will host a news teleconference at 11 a.m. PDT (2 p.m. EDT) Thursday, April 17, to announce a new discovery made by its planet-hunting mission, the Kepler Space Telescope. The journal Science has embargoed the findings until the time of the news conference."

COSMOS Re-imagined

COSMOS Then and Now, Keith Cowing

"The new incarnation of "COSMOS" hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson debuted the other night. Highly anticipated, this new effort seeks to reboot, rekindle, and revitalize the indelible impression that its predecessor, hosted by Carl Sagan, made on many of us back in 1980. The first episode of the new COSMOS did not disappoint. Will it be the equal of its predecessor? Hard to say after just one episode - but nothing I saw leads me to think that it will be anything but spectacular and on a par with Sagan's pioneering work."

NASA Wants to Explore Europa On the Cheap, Planetary Society

"Over the past few years, JPL and APL has been working on a reduced-cost Europa concept called the Europa Clipper, which would fly by Europa on the order of 50 times over a few years to map the surface and determine the properties of the assumed ocean and ice sheet. The Clipper had an estimated cost of $2.1 billion, less than half of the originally-conceived Europa Orbiter, which was around $4.7 billion. This would place the Clipper as a "flagship" mission, though on the low side for a flagship."

Michael Meyer Selected as Interim Director of NASA Astrobiology Institute

"Effective April 7, 2014, Michael Meyer will serve on a one-year detail assignment as the interim director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. NAI is a virtual, distributed organization of competitively-selected teams that integrate astrobiology research and training programs in concert with the national and international science communities. It is supported by the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington."

NASA Media Telecon to Announce Latest Kepler Discoveries, 26 Feb.

"NASA will host a news teleconference at 1 p.m. EST (18:00 UTC), Wednesday, Feb. 26, to announce new discoveries made by its planet-hunting mission, the Kepler Space Telescope."

Kepler Has Discovered 715 New Extrasolar Planets

"NASA's Kepler mission announced Wednesday the discovery of 715 new planets. These newly-verified worlds orbit 305 stars, revealing multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system. Nearly 95 percent of these planets are smaller than Neptune, which is almost four times the size of Earth. This discovery marks a significant increase in the number of known small-sized planets more akin to Earth than previously identified exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system."

Tom Pierson

Keith's note: SETI Institute Founding CEO Tom Pierson has left our planet. Learn more about his life here. Ad Astra, Tom.

"Under Pierson's guidance, the Institute grew from a tiny, narrowly focused research center with a handful of employees to its current status: an internationally known organization that is home to more than 130 scientists, educators, and support staff.  While founded to conduct SETI searches, the Institute soon broadened its mandate to encompass all aspects of understanding the nature and prevalence of life beyond Earth."

Looking For Other Earths

Looking for a Mirror, NY Times

"The challenges to photographing a mirror Earth are daunting, but not insurmountable. A small rocky planet is a dim mote of dust lost in the glare from a thermonuclear fireball we call a star. For every photon of planetary light that goes into making a picture, 10 billion stellar photons must first be filtered out; remarkably, researchers have already devised several ways to do this. All that the planet-hunters really need to find the mirror Earths is a big mirror, high above the Earth's blurring atmosphere -- a space telescope large enough to gather the faint light of Goldilocks worlds around a sizable sample of stars."

Hearing on Astrobiology

Testimony of Dr. Sara Seager, Hearing on Astrobiology

"We stand on a great threshold in the human history of space exploration. On the one side of this threshold, we know with certainty that planets orbiting stars other than the Sun exist and are common. ... On the other side of this great threshold lies the robust identification of Earth-like exoplanets with habitable conditions, and with signs of life inferred by the detection of "biosignature gases" in exoplanetary atmospheres."

Testimony of Dr. Mary A. Voytek, Hearing on Astrobiology

"Even today, children wonder, where did I come from? Astrobiology seeks to answer this enduring question."

Testimony of Dr. Steven J. Dick, Hearing on Astrobiology

"During my time as NASA Chief Historian, everywhere I went people of all ages wanted to know about life on other worlds. Astrobiology raises fundamental questions and evokes a sense of awe and wonder as we realize perhaps there is something new under our Sun, and the Suns of other worlds."

Keith's 2:30 pm EST note: NASA Ames PAO just hosted a media briefing on new Kepler news being released today i.e. "22±8 % of the Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet"' (per Tweet below). One small problem, they did not set the number of guests who could connect via on Adobe Connect so a lot of media were unable to connect untill well after the media briefing was underway. But the news was already being tweeted by participants (an hour ago) in that news briefing. When I asked NASA ARC PAO for a copy of the press release they refused to send me anything saying that NASA HQ PAO will be releasing the news at 3:00 pm EST. Meanwhile NASA has been sending copies of the paper around to hand-picked members of the news media. So ... NASA holds a badly-planned news conference and whoever attends (or logs in early) can release the news to the public but NASA won't let anyone else see the news that they have already released. Baffling strategy.

Habitable Planets Around White Dwarfs: an Alternate Mission for the Kepler Spacecraft

"Our proposed survey requires a total of 200 days of observing time, and will find up to 100 planets in the white dwarf (WD) habitable zone. This survey will maintain Kepler's spirit of searching for habitable Earths, but near new hosts. With few-day observations and minute-cadences per field, it will also open up a completely unexplored discovery space."

Keith's 3 Sep update: Additional Kepler white papers have been posted.

- Kepler: Searching The Habitable Zones of the Brightest Stars
- Kepler: Asteroseismology of Solar-Like Oscillators in a 2-Wheel Mission
- Kepler: Monitoring young associations and open clusters with Kepler in two-wheel mode
- The Kep-Cont Mission: Continuing the observation of high-amplitude variable stars in the Kepler field of view
- The Kepler-SEP Mission: Harvesting the South Ecliptic Pole large-amplitude variables with Kepler

Keith's 4 Sep update: Even more Kepler white papers have been posted.

- NEOKepler: Discovering Near-Earth Objects Using the Kepler Spacecraft
- Searching for Terrestrial Planets Orbiting in the Habitable Zone of Ultra-Cool Stars and Brown Dwarfs
- New Uses for the Kepler Telescope: A Survey of the Ecliptic Plane For Transiting Planets and Star Formation

Are We All Martians?

'We are all Martians': Chemist's otherworldly claim stirs debate, NBC

"Is Benner's story too kooky to believe? One thing's for sure: Benner is not a kook. He was one of the first chemists to voice skepticism about the claims for arsenic-based life, which stirred up such a fuss in 2010. ... This time, the wet-blanket role is filled by David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Grinspoon, who's spending a year doing research at the Library of Congress, says that he's a "huge fan" of Benner's, but that his extraordinary claim isn't sufficiently supported by the evidence."

New Research Supports Theory That Life Started on Mars, Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology

Europa Questions

If We Landed on Europa, What Would We Want to Know?, NASA

"Most of what scientists know of Jupiter's moon Europa they have gleaned from a dozen or so close flybys from NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979 and NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Even in these fleeting, paparazzi-like encounters, scientists have seen a fractured, ice-covered world with tantalizing signs of a liquid water ocean under its surface. Such an environment could potentially be a hospitable home for microbial life. But what if we got to land on Europa's surface and conduct something along the lines of a more in-depth interview? What would scientists ask? A new study in the journal Astrobiology authored by a NASA-appointed science definition team lays out their consensus on the most important questions to address."

John Billingham

Keith's note: NASA sources report that John Billingham has passed away. John ran the SETI Program Office when NASA used to do SETI. He also ran life science at NASA Ames. John was one of the first people I met when I started to work at NASA's Life Sciences Division in the 1980s. He was not your stereotypical NASA employee - his accent, background, and demeanor - were decidely old world mixed with a dose of California crazy. An M.D. and former RAF officer running NASA's search for extraterrestrial intelligence? That sounds like something out of Dr. Who. That was John - he was always a hoot to be around and will be missed.

John Billingham, SETI Institute

"Captivated by the prospect of detecting sentient beings elsewhere in the cosmos, Billingham joined with Barney Oliver - then director of research and development at the Hewlett Packard corporation - to organize a joint summer design study of the technology and science of SETI. Two dozen academics spent three months considering what sort of equipment was needed to make a serious, systematic search for signals, and where they should point the antennas. Their conclusions, published as "Project Cyclops," became the bible of SETI research for decades to come, and are still important today."

Bacteria Sent Into Space Behave in Mysterious Ways, NASA

"Colonies of bacteria grown aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis behaved in ways never before observed on Earth, according to a new NASA-funded study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. Recent findings provide important evidence of spaceflight's effect on the behavior of bacterial communities, and represent a key step toward understanding and mitigating the risk these bacteria may pose to astronauts during long-term space missions.

The research team, led by Rensselaer faculty member Cynthia Collins, sent the experiment into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis missions STS-132 on May 16, 2010 and STS-135 on July 8, 2011. Samples of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa were cultured for three days in artificial urine. The space-grown communities of bacteria, called biofilms, formed a "column-and-canopy" structure not previously observed on Earth. Additionally, biofilms grown during spaceflight had a greater number of live cells, more biomass, and were thicker than control biofilms grown under normal gravity conditions."

Hearing charter

"The purpose of the hearing is to review the recent discovery of three super-Earth sized planets by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) 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 (NSF) 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."

Prepared Statements

- James Ulvestad, NSF
- John Grunsfeld, NASA
- Laurance Doyle, SETI Institute
- Rep. Steven Palazzo
- Rep. Larry Bucshon
- Rep. Lamar Smith

Kepler-62 Has Two Water Worlds Circling in its Habitable Zone

"In our solar system, only one planet is blessed with an ocean: Earth. Our home world is a rare, blue jewel compared to the deserts of Mercury, Venus and Mars. But what if our Sun had not one but two habitable ocean worlds? Astronomers have found such a planetary system orbiting the star Kepler-62."

New Earth-like Planets Found, CIW

"Theoretical modeling of the super-Earth planets, Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, suggests that both could be solid, either rocky--or rocky with frozen water."

NASA's Kepler Discovers Smallest 'Habitable Zone' Planets to Date, NASA

"The Kepler-62 system has five planets; 62b, 62c, 62d, 62e and 62f. The Kepler-69 system has two planets; 69b and 69c. Kepler-62e, 62f and 69c are the super-Earth-size planets."

Curiosity Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars

"An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month. "A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

David McKay

Dr. David S. McKay Has Passed Away

"Our friend and colleague, Dr. David S. McKay, passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early morning hours yesterday, 20 February 2013. David had been battling serious health problems for some time, especially cardiac issues this past year or so. He was 77. .. Of course, he was the lead author on the 1996 paper in Science on the ALH84001 martian orthopyroxenite, arguing that it contains evidence for life on Mars. Although that claim was highly controversial, there can be no question that the appearance of that paper sparked significant changes in martian and planetary science, shaped the direction of the Mars Exploration Program to the present day, and prompted the establishment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute."

Astrobiology in Antarctica

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Status Report 26 November 2012, Lake Untersee, Antarctica

"With the small 25 cm diameter sampling hole opened in the south basin of Lake Untersee, Valery, Vladimir and Michael collected 30 liters of water that is now being filtered in the lab tent. Filtering is a fairly slow process but we have several nice vacuum pumps and manifolds so at least we will be efficient. Nevertheless, Valery and Vladimir will be filtering and preserving samples most of the day and evening. "

-Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Checks In From Novolazarevskaya Station, Antarctica
- Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Status Report 21 November 2012, Novolazarevskaya Station, Antarctica
- Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Status Report 24 November 2012, Lake Untersee, Antarctica
- Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Status Report 25 November 2012, Lake Untersee, Antarctica

- The McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Research Project Life in Extreme Environments; An Antarctic Field Journal (1996/1997)

Keith's note: Dale and I have been doing remote website updates like this for a long time. This website is our first attempt from 1996/1997. We are not exactly certain, but we think that this is one of the very first websites updated in near real time directly from Antarctica. Note the "How we Built This Website" comments if you want a look into ancient technology. Also ... note the cold, dirty guys in the last picture on this page. Its not all that unusual for Dale to email/call/Skype me from Antarctica/the Arctic (or for me to contact him from the Arctic or places like Everest Base Camp) - so the next phone call I get with no information on Caller ID is probably Dale.

Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now, NPR

"The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. "We're getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting," John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That's where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. "The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down," says Grotzinger. SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of. Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good," he says."

Keith's 20 Nov note: NASA SMD PAO has confirmed that Grotzinger will make an announcement at the AGU meeting next Wednesday. Given that he repeatedly uses phrases such as "Earthshaking" and "one for the history books" when talking to the media (clearly with zero NASA PAO guidance) one had better hope that his news will indeed be of that importance. Of course, while everyone seems to be thinking that SAM may have found something important in terms of organic compounds, it could well be that it has found absolutely no sign of organics. I suppose both extremes could be considered "Earthshaking" and "one for the history books". Given NASA SMD's recent botched PR efforts with regard to life in the universe i.e. "Arsenic-based life" and "Earthlike planets", yet another false alarm or flurry of unsubstantiated arm waving and hype would really undermine SMD's credibility.

Keith's 21 Nov 10:07 am EST update: Now NASA PAO and others are finally being dragged into the viral discussion. Perhaps if Grotzinger coordinated his message and choice of words (in advance), things would calm down a little. Given that everyone at NASA is either on vacation or about to go away for a long Thanksgiving weekend, I suspect this flurry won't really diminish. All too soon the UK tabloids will be proclaiming that Curiosity has (once again) "found life" on Mars.

Dcouverte historique pour Curiosity : le vrai, le faux, Ciel & Space

VIA Google Translate: "A "buzz" unjustified "None of that!" Insists the French Michel Cabane, Co scientific instrument Sat "We do not understand what is happening. We have absolutely no news to announce glowing!"

A Mars Announcement 'for the History Books'? Not So Fast, Time

JPL spokesman Guy Webster made just this point today in an e-mail to TIME: "As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books," he wrote. That's not to say he rules out the possibility of truly big news. "It won't be earthshaking," he said in a later phone call, "but it will be interesting."

Keith's 21 Nov 2:46 pm EST update: According to Mars Curiosity's Facebook page: "What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission "one for the history books." This is just bizarre.

First Grotzinger, the mission's Co-I gets quoted on a national news outlet saying some rather provocative things. Then NASA PAO refuses to make any statement either confirming or denying what Grotzinger said (indeed they have decline to dispute these comments when asked). Then someone at JPL takes to a Facebook page to try and cast doubt on Internet rumors. Between Grotzinger's comments, and lack of PAO clarification, it is obvious that no one really cares if these rumors continue - or if they are inaccurate - and also, that no one is really in charge of public relations for this mission.

Keith's 23 Nov note: Yes, when you listen to the audio, its the journalist who uses the word "Earthshaking". And then Grotzinger agrees with the word (there is no evidence from the tape that he denied that this word was accurate in any way). When you ask NASA PAO if they dispute the characterization of Grotiznger's comments as stating that the new data is "Earthshaking" NASA PAO says "No".

If this announcement is not "Earthshaking" then why does NASA repeatedly pass on repeated inquires from the media when they offer NASA a chance to dispute the accuracy of the term or to distance themselves from its use in this specific context?

NASA Hosts Nov. 2 Teleconference About Mars Rover Progress

"NASA will host a media teleconference at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT) on Friday, Nov. 2, to provide an update on Curiosity's studies of the Martian atmosphere."

Curiosity set to weigh in on Mars methane puzzle, Nature

"NASA has announced that Grotzinger's team will discuss atmospheric measurements at a briefing on 2 November. If the rover has detected methane at sufficiently high concentration, or exhibiting temporal variations of the kind that suggests microbial activity, then it will surely motivate a desire to identify and map the sources."

Keith's note: Up until now, NASA has been rather quiet about the characterization of methane distribution by Curiosity ...

Watch LIVE

Keith's update: Press conference statement: "How much methane did we see? So far we have no definitive detection of methane. We have no detection of methane but we will keep looking in the month ahead."

NASA'S Curiosity Rover Provides Clues to Changes in Martian Atmosphere

"Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we're just excited to be searching for it," said SAM TLS lead Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us."

Marc's note: I've added the complete recording of today's telecon with reporters questions to the above press release.

'Arsenic-life' bacterium prefers phosphorous after all, Nature

"Tawfik says that he was shocked by how good the proteins were at discriminating between the essential phosphate and the deadly arsenate. This does not mean that arsenate does not get into the bacteria, he points out. "It just shows that this bacterium has evolved to extract phosphate under almost all circumstances." The exceedingly high preference for phosphorous found in the key proteins in that species represent "just the last nail in the coffin" of the hypothesis that GFAJ-1 uses arsenic in its DNA, says Tawfik."

The molecular basis of phosphate discrimination in arsenate-rich environments, Nature

NASA's Big Arsenic-Based Life Claim Was Wrong, earlier post

Bob Wharton

President of South Dakota School of Mines dies, PRapid City Journal

"Wharton served as executive officer for the National Science Foundation's office of polar programs, participating in 11 expeditions to the Antarctic. He also was a visiting senior scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C."

Keith's note: I am profoundly saddened to hear of Bob's passing. I got to know Bob very well when he and I worked at the old Life Sciences Division at NASA Headquarters in the 1980s. Bob was an astrobiologist before the word had even been coined. He was an adventurer and a jack of all trades. Among other things, he spent a lot of time diving under Antarctic ice with Chris McKay and Dale Andersen and roaming the Antarctic dry valleys. He was also an avid climber and mountaineer. Bob and I went rock climbing several times. One trip in particular, to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, on a day not unlike today, is etched into my mind. I can clearly recall asking him on that trip if he thought there was life on Mars. He paused for a moment and said "I ... think so". I can only hope that somewhere on Curiosity's travels across Gale crater on Mars, that something of prominence is named after Bob Wharton.

If the Mars rover finds water, it could be H2 ... uh oh!, LA Times

"On Nov. 1, after learning that the drill bit box had been opened, Conley said she had the mission reclassified to one in which Curiosity could touch the surface of Mars "as long as there is no ice or water." Conley's predecessor at NASA, John D. Rummel, a professor of biology at East Carolina University, said, partly in jest: "It will be a sad day for NASA if they do detect ice or water. That's because the Curiosity project will most likely be told, 'Gee, that's nice. Now turn around.' " If water is found, Curiosity could still conduct tests from a distance with instruments including a laser and spectrometers."

Mars Rover May Be Contaminated with Earth Microbes, NPR

"... what we would do is we would take a step back, and we would convene a panel of scientific experts to review the whole procedure, look at the amount of ultraviolet light that might've been hitting the drill bit that would be burning, you know, giving all those organisms sunburn. There are a small number of organisms on the rover, many, many fewer than there are on the palm of your hand. But there are a few. So we would convene this panel of experts. We'd look at the conditions at Gale Crater. We'd consider what the characteristics of this potential water or ice might be, and then that panel would decide how we should proceed with the potential to study that."

NASA's Kepler Discovers Multiple Planets Orbiting a Pair of Stars

"NASA's Kepler mission has discovered multiple transiting planets orbiting two suns for the first time. The system, known as a circumbinary planetary system, is 4,900 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. Coming less than a year after the announcement of the first circumbinary planet, Kepler-16b, this discovery proves that more than one planet can form and persist in the stressful realm of a binary star."

Building Blocks of Life Found Around Young Sun-like Star

"The astronomers found molecules of glycolaldehyde -- a simple form of sugar -- in the gas surrounding a young binary star, with similar mass to the Sun, called IRAS 16293-2422. Glycolaldehyde has been seen in interstellar space before, but this is the first time it has been found so near to a Sun-like star, at distances comparable to the distance of Uranus from the Sun in the Solar System. This discovery shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this system at the time of planet formation."

Likely footprint of spiky dinosaur has NASA's Md. campus on cloud nine, Washington Post

"A scalloped mini-crater with four pointy toe prints pressed into ruddy rock, the putative dinosaur track juts out from a scruffy slope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center..."

NASA's Nodosaur Track, Smithsonian

"Officials at the NASA campus are already moving to protect the fossil, and they plan to bring in paleontologists to look for other dinosaur tracks. The NASA scientists want to keep the site a secret, Vastag reports, but ultimately want the public to be able to see the track."

Keith's note: Too bad NASA couldn't take this opportunity - one so close to its facilities - to treat this excavation as if it were a scientific endeavour using robotics i.e. practice for work on Mars or elsewhere. Besides, what things do kids like the most? Dinosaurs and outer space. This is a twofer.

Keeping the location "secret" is a wise precaution to take when there is no security to protect sites like this from looters. But this site is located inside a NASA field center with what one would hope is a secure perimeter. Does NASA think people might break in to GSFC and chip the footprints out of the ground? Or do they not trust Goddard employees? Given the immense value of other things lying around at GSFC, one would think that the agency would trust its employees enough to honor a "do not disturb" sign just like they do every other notice they encounter. Photos anyone? We'll post them anonymously.

Keith's update: NASA GSFC Has posted an Update on this story. They still will not reveal the exact location inside this secure Federal facility. i.e. "Goddard Facilities Manager Alan Binstock said the agency considers the footprint and its location "sensitive but unclassified."

Ocean Optics Spectrometers Land Safely on Mars

"Three Ocean Optics instruments have completed their eight month journey to Mars to study soil composition as part of the ChemCam mission. The company's modular Jaz spectrometer scaled Mt. Everest with a team that included NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski to measure solar irradiance at extreme altitude."

Using a Tricorder on Mount Everest

"If you've ever seen a Starfleet away team beaming down to a new planet, you know that the first thing they do is whip out their tricorder and scan everything. Many of NASA's astrobiologists want one. Well, Scott and I had one at Everest."

Keith's note: I carried this cool device up to Everest Base Camp and then Scott carried it up the mountain. Its not unusual for people to trek into Everest with the latest high tech gear on display but every time I pulled this thing out people stopped to watch me go through my procedure. I took this promo photo of Scott using the Jaz unit while we were standing next to our tents at Everest Base Camp. An instant later we heard a loud noise coming from the icefall. I quickly switched my camera from still to video and shot this video since I was literally pointed at the exact right spot already. This was one of the largest avalanches in recent seasons.

Had I not been taking the PR shot of Scott and the Jaz unit I'd have missed most of this avalanche. (More details in comments below). Now I see that our good friends at Ocean Optics have hardware on Mars. How cool - especially since I had 4 little Moon rocks in my chest pocket when I shot these pics and video - and our Moon rocks are now on the ISS.

Absence of Detectable Arsenate in DNA from Arsenate-Grown GFAJ-1 Cells, Science

GFAJ-1 Is an Arsenate-Resistant, Phosphate-Dependent Organism, Science

Discovery of an arsenic-friendly microbe refuted, USA Today

"The discovery of an arsenic-loving microbe that NASA said would rewrite biology textbooks and offered hope of life on other planets now looks like a case study in how science corrects its mistakes, researchers report. In findings released Sunday by the journal Science, two research teams take aim at the "arseniclife" bacteria. The microbe was announced by the journal in 2010 at a NASA news briefing as "the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic." The new findings show that was not the case."

Keith's 8 Jul note: Now that Science magazine has published two papers that refute NASA's big announcement several years ago, I wonder if NASA SMD PAO will reference these papers and admit that the claims made in earlier NASA statements were indeed wrong. I'm not holding my breath. It will also be interesting to see how Science magazine handles this issue since these two new papers in Science refute the original paper - which was also published in Science.

Keith's 9 Jul update: Still no response from NASA despite several requests. All they've said is that they are working on a response.

Keith's 9 Jul further update: After ignoring the first request from NASAWatch made first thing this morning, a second request this evening elicited this response - one that was sent earlier today to other media outlets from Michael H. New, astrobiology discipline scientist in NASA's Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters:

"NASA supports robust and continuous peer review of any scientific finding, especially discoveries with wide-ranging implications. It was expected that the 2010 Wolfe-Simon et al. Science paper would not be exempt from such standard scientific practices, and in fact, was anticipated to generate significant scientific attention given the surprising results in that paper. The two new papers published in Science on the micro-organism GFAJ-1 exemplify this process and provide important new insights. Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism that can survive in a highly phosphate-poor and arsenic-rich environment toxic to many other micro-organisms. What has emerged from these three papers is an as yet incomplete picture of GFAJ-1 that clearly calls for additional research."

Funny how Dr. New won't address this earlier official NASA SMD PAO hype - often bordering on outlandish - that accompanied the original paper's publication. No doubt whatsoever with the findings was voiced - nor was there any hint that this paper was an "incomplete picture":

"Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components. "The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it." This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth."

SETI Undeterred

Why I'm not giving up on the search for extraterrestrial life, Jill Tarter, Washington Post

"Our 50 years of searching is equivalent to scooping a single glass of water from the Earth's oceans to examine it for fish. It is an experiment that could work -- but if it fails, the correct conclusion is that there was inadequate sampling, not that the oceans are devoid of fish. Today, our searches are getting exponentially better. If we are looking for the right thing, it will take only a few decades to conduct a search that is comprehensive enough to be successful or to yield conclusive negative results."

Going Off Source: Time away with SETI in West Virginia (1997), SpaceRef

"As you approach the 140 foot dish, you are confronted with a weather-beaten behemoth. It is old and dirty - not unlike the bridge of one of those aircraft carriers often used as a nautical museum. The structure is designed not only to bear the weight of the immense dish, but also to withstand the strong winds which bear upon it. The word "monument" seems to be more fitting than "radio telescope"."

Two-Thirds of Americans Think Barack Obama Is Better Suited to Handle an Alien Invasion Than Mitt Romney

"In regards to national security, nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans think Barack Obama would be better suited than fellow presidential candidate Mitt Romney to handle an alien invasion. In fact, more than two in three (68%) women say that Obama would be more adept at dealing with an alien invasion than Romney, vs. 61 percent of men. And more younger citizens, ages 18 to 64 years, than those aged 65+ (68% vs. 50%) think Romney would not be as well-suited as Obama to handle an alien invasion."

Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet, OSTP

"Thank you for signing the petition asking the Obama Administration to acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence here on Earth. The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye. However, that doesn't mean the subject of life outside our planet isn't being discussed or explored."

Figueroa Rules Out Another NASA Mars Rover Before 2020, Space News

"Figueroa reiterated previous statements that his team will consider only missions that contribute in some way to an eventual Mars sample-return mission, which is the U.S. planetary science community's top priority for flagship-class Mars exploration endeavors."

Keith's note: This is a mindset ripe with old thinking. Even without the budget cuts, the costs for a Mars sample return mission have steadily increased over the decades that NASA has planned for it. NASA needs to head down a new path (or series of paths) wherein basic questions regarding the presence of current or previous life on Mars are addressed through more advanced and focused technologies - ones that can be used in situ. Instead, Figueroa et al are simply tied to old ways of thinking that make answering these questions move further into the future rather than making them move closer - all because the sample return mantra is etched into their brains from decades of repeating it among themselves.

It has been nearly 40 years since the twin Viking landers were sent to Mars. This is the last time NASA tried to do in situ testing for the presence of life on Mars. It is rather embarassing that NASA has not tried to do this again in the ensuing four decades or that it apparently won't try to do in the coming decade.

Astronaut Don Pettit's Diary of a Space Zucchini

"January 5, 2012: I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me. I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart. I am the kind that makes little boys gag at the dinner table thus being sent to bed without their dessert. I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini - and I am in space."

Keith's note: When I was in high school I was mesmerized by a film that is often relegated to being a "cult classic" "Silent Running". While the premise is from the 1970's popular mindset, the premise is simple: a bunch of plants and animals are kept alive in space in giant greenhouses. I soon went on to become a biologist - eventually a space biologist at NASA - and these images from the film were always on my mind.

Looking For Life on Mars - Without Fiddling Around

"We really want to address the big questions on Mars and not fiddle around," says Dirk Schulze-Makuch, whose earlier proposals have included an economical one-way trip to the red planet. "With the money for space exploration drying up, we finally have to get some exciting results that not only the experts and scientists in the field are interested in but that the public is interested too."

Viking Data Suggests Life?, Universe Today via NASA's Astrobiology Magazine

"Researchers from universities in Los Angeles, California, Tempe, Arizona and Siena, Italy have published a paper in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences (IJASS) citing the results of their work with data obtained by NASA's Viking mission."

Is it Snowing Microbes on Enceladus?, Science.nasa.gov

"There's a tiny moon orbiting beyond Saturn's rings that's full of promise, and maybe -- just maybe -- microbes. In a series of tantalizingly close flybys to the moon, named "Enceladus," NASA's Cassini spacecraft has revealed watery jets erupting from what may be a vast underground sea. These jets, which spew through cracks in the moon's icy shell, could lead back to a habitable zone that is uniquely accessible in all the solar system."

Keith's note:I am a biologist. Back in the day I ran many NASA peer review panels for exobiology research and helped plan NASA's initial astrobiology program. I run astrobiology.com and would absolutely love this story to be true i.e. microbes raining on Enceladus but ... its not true - at least no one has proved it. Dr. Porco's guesses are imaginative and inspired and are not without some strong supporting data but they are just guesses - and Cassini does not have any way to prove that there is anything alive in these plumes. So yes, "let's go back".

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen's Field Reports: Lake Untersee, Antarctica (Gigapixel panorama)

"Those early ecosystems resulted in the formation of luxuriant microbial mats with a variety of morphologies which are seen today in the stromatolitic fossil record scattered around the globe. Until recently, there have been no reports of modern microorganisms forming such structures, but in 2008 our research team discovered large conical stromatolites forming beneath the thick perennial ice of Lake Untersee in Antarctica."

Keith's note: SCUBA diving with robots under the antarctic ice in search of life. Good practice for looking for life's signs on Mars, Europa, Enceladus ...

Study challenges existence of arsenic-based life, Nature

"A group of scientists, led by microbiologist Rosie Redfield at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, have posted data on Redfield's blog that, she says, present a "clear refutation" of key findings from the paper. Redfield and her collaborators hope to submit their work to Science by the end of the month. She says that if Science refuses to publish the work because it has been discussed on blogs, it will become an important test case for open science."

- The Arsenic-Based-Life Aftermath, C&EN
- Is This New Study the Nail in the Coffin of "Arsenic Life"?, Popular Science
- - Closely Watched Study Fails to Find Arsenic in Microbial DNA, Science
Arsenic-based life finding fails follow-up, ScienceNews

Happy Holidays From Antarctica

"Astrobiologist Dale Andersen from the SETI Institute is currently on his way back to the U.s. via a stop over in Capetown, South Africa. Dale and his team spent a month or so at Lake Untersee in Antarctica. This photo was taken shortly before Christmas. Dale is shown holding a patch for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education."

NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone of Sun-Like Star

"NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the "habitable zone," the region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets."

Kepler-22b: A 2.4 Earth-radius Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Sun-like Star

"A search of the time-series photometry from NASA's Kepler spacecraft reveals a transiting planet candidate orbiting the 11th magnitude G5 dwarf KIC 10593626 with a period of 290 days. The characteristics of the host star are well constrained by high-resolution spectroscopy combined with an asteroseismic analysis of the Kepler photometry, leading to an estimated mass and radius of 0.970 +/- 0.060 MSun and 0.979 +/- 0.020 RSun. The depth of 492 +/- 10ppm for the three observed transits yields a radius of 2.38 +/- 0.13 REarth for the planet."

Keith's note: In a Mars Science Laboratory pre-launch press conference today, NASA's Doug McCuistion said "MSL is seeking signs of life but this is not a life detection mission". NASA is still confused as to what this mission is about - or at least its PR people are confused. If you are seeking "signs of life" then it is not impossible that those "signs of life", if detected, might also be an indication of extant life. So I guess if NASA detects life on Mars it won't say anything since it is not looking for life to begin with? It is this sort of confusing verbiage that makes PR problems for NASA. Remember the Kepler story last year wherein a project scientist referred to "earth-like" planets but stumbled (days later) to say that he did not really mean that they were "earth-like"?

On one official NASA MSL website at JPL ( http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ - NASA seems to need more than one official website) says "The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in the past.". That could include extant life too, based on how this is written. If MSL CANNOT detect existing life then NASA should say so. If it can, then NASA should say so.

Oh yes, the official NASA MSL website at NASA.gov (which does not link to the JPL MSL website above) links to another MSL website at JPL - http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl instead. NASA seems to be incapable of having one place where it describes this mission, thus compounding public confusion.

White House: No E.T. - Yet

White House Responds to Petition: Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet, OSTP

"Thank you for signing the petition asking the Obama Administration to acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence here on Earth. The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye. However, that doesn't mean the subject of life outside our planet isn't being discussed or explored. In fact, there are a number of projects working toward the goal of understanding if life can or does exist off Earth. Here are a few examples:"

Another Earth?

Is There A Habitable Planet Circling HD 85512?

"Aims: In this study we assess the habitability of HD85512b, a 3.6M_Earth planet orbiting a K5V star. The radial velocity data and orbital parameters for HD 85512 b have just been published, based on data from the dedicated HARPS-upgrade GTO program. Methods: This paper outlines a simple approach to evaluate habitability of rocky planets from radial velocity (RV) searches by using atmospheric models of rocky planets with H2O/CO2/N2 atmospheres, like Earth. We focus our analysis on HD 85512 b."

Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists, The Guardian

"Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth's atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control - and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain. This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by scientists at Nasa and Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future. Shawn Domagal-Goldman of Nasa's Planetary Science Division and his colleagues compiled a list of plausible outcomes that could unfold in the aftermath of a close encounter, to help humanity "prepare for actual contact".

Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity? A scenario analysis, (full paper) Acta Astronautica, 2011 via arXiv.org (PDF)

The Drudge Report Drives More Top News Traffic than Twitter or Facebook, Study Finds, PBS NewsHour

Keith's 18 Aug 10 pm EDT note: (Sigh) This article is prominently featured on the Drudge Report with the title of "NASA REPORT: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations...". This is not a "NASA report". Nor does the Guardian article accurately describe the paper's content and conclusions. Alas, NASA will probably just allow this latest misperception/mischaracterization to linger (along with all the other urban myths, faulty analyses, etc) with no response - at least none until it is too late to really make any difference. Oh yes, Drudge Report got 32,697,733 visits in the past 24 hours.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman note: Some important points of clarification, PaleBlueBlog

"But I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and anaiveone... but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as "NASA Headquarters." I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. I'm deeply sorry for that, but it was a mistake born our of carelessness and inexperience and nothing more. I will do what I can to rectify this, including distributing this post to the Guardian, Drudge, and NASA Watch. Please help me spread this post to the other places you may see the article inaccurately attributed to NASA."

Keith's 19 Aug 6:50 am EDT update: Personally I think it is an interesting paper and well worth the effort on the part of the authors. My issue is with the way that the agency lets misperceptions made by news aggretators and UK tabloids linger in front of millions of people, the media, decision makers, without making any attempt to set the record straight. NASA has an online line presence of some considerable reach (see "Choir Practice With Bullhorns at NASA") - why not use that to counter these erroneous online claims? Hats off to Shawn Domagal-Goldman for being open and honest and attempting to do so. Gee, maybe PAO could help a little too? If done properly this could also serve as an opportunity for NASA to talk about a topic that a lot of people find interesting - and maybe educate and excite a few people along the way. This is an opportunity to teach and inform, not one to hide and wait for things to blow over. And maybe NASA could have a little fun with it too - if it can stage photo ops with Chris Ferguson and Elmo (a TV show puppet)...

Alas, the inevitable evil ET feeding frenzy via "NASA report" misinformation is now spreading - CNET, International Business Times, the Spokane Examiner, Daily Mail, and even Discovery News simply repeat the very same mistakes that the Guardian made (with the Guardian as their source) in their original article with out doing any fact checking themselves. This is NOT a NASA report, folks. Did anyone actually contact the authors?

Keith's 19 Aug 8:09 am EDT update: @NASA just twittered: Yes, @drudge & @guardiannews are mistaken about an "alien" report. It's not NASA research. Ask the report's author http://go.nasa.gov/nRI8Lf

Keith's 19 Aug 8:29 am EDT update: The Guardian has quietly (without admitting any error on its part) modified its article to read "warns a report."

SETI Needs Your Help to Resume Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Keith's note 22 June 2011: "We are discovering more Earth-like planets every day, so now is more critical than ever to look for extraterrestrial life. A contribution from you, today, will fund telescope scans for signs of intelligence beyond our solar system. Please donate and help us find intelligent life out there. At the SETI Institute, we've made a name for ourselves exploring space. But it's our community here on Earth--passionate, science-minded and creative--that truly defines us. That's why we're launching SETIstars, an initiative to connect us more closely than ever with the constellation of visionaries and supporters that make our work possible."

Keith's note 4 August 2011: " 2181 STARS - $202,299 OUT OF $200,000 - 101%"

NASA Ames to Host Tribute to Nobel Prize Winner Baruch Blumberg

"Among the speakers scheduled at the tribute celebration are former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, Ames Research Center Director S. Pete Worden and members of the Blumberg family. Also featured will be a video tribute and presentations by the Mars Institute, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and NASA Ames. The tribute will be webcast at http://connect.arc.nasa.gov/blumberg"

Keith's note: I will be making a presentation on Tuesday on behalf of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

NASA Exobiology 2010 Update #3, NASA SMD

"I had hoped by now to have selection recommendations complete. However, as I was working through the reviews, a budget reduction to Exobiology was unexpectedly announced. Mary Voytek and I are fighting back and hope to reclaim some of the funding but until I know my budget, I cannot make selection recommendations. It is likely, though, that this year's selections will be fewer than expected."

Kepler's Astounding Haul of Multiplanet Systems, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

"In particular, the Kepler systems with multiple planets are much flatter than our solar system. They have to be for Kepler to spot them. Kepler watches for a planet to cross in front of its star, blocking a tiny fraction of the star's light. By measuring how much the star dims during such a transit, astronomers can calculate the planet's size, and by observing the time between successive events they can derive the orbital period -- how long it takes the planet to revolve around its star."

Spitzer and Kepler Confirm New Extrasolar Planet, NASA

"A new planetary member of the Kepler-10 solar system was announced today. Using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, members of the Kepler science team confirmed a new planet, dubbed Kepler-10c."

Budget crunch mothballs telescopes built to search for alien signals, Scientific American

"The hunt for extraterrestrial life just lost one of its best tools. The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a field of radio dishes in rural northern California built to seek out transmissions from distant alien civilizations, has been shuttered, at least temporarily, as its operators scramble to find a way to continue to fund it. In an April 22 letter to donors, Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., explained that the ATA has been put into "hibernation," meaning that "starting this week, the equipment is unavailable for normal observations and is being maintained in a safe state by a significantly reduced staff." The ATA is a partnership between the SETI Institute, which is responsible for building the telescope array, and the University of California, Berkeley, which is responsible for operating it."

NASA Spacecraft Reveals Dramatic Changes In Mars' Atmosphere

"NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has discovered the total amount of atmosphere on Mars changes dramatically as the tilt of the planet's axis varies. This process can affect the stability of liquid water if it exists on the Martian surface and increase the frequency and severity of Martian dust storms. Researchers using MRO's ground-penetrating radar identified a large, buried deposit of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, at the Red Planet's south pole. The scientists suspect that much of this carbon dioxide enters the planet's atmosphere and swells the atmosphere's mass when Mars' tilt increases."

"This was filmed between 4th and 11th April 2011. I had the pleasure of visiting El Teide. Spain's highest mountain @(3715m) is one of the best places in the world to photograph the stars and is also the location of Teide Observatories, considered to be one of the world's best observatories." More

Alien Life on Earth

Astrobiologists Discover Strange Benthic Microbial Mats in Antarctica

"Photosynthetic microbial mats forming large conical structures up to half a meter tall have been discovered by astrobiologists in Lake Untersee, Antarctica. This research is described in a forthcoming article in the journal Geobiology. During the expedition, three members of the field team, Dale Andersen (SETI Institute), Ian Hawes (University of Canterbury), and Chris McKay (NASA ARC) explored the lake beneath its 3 meter thick ice-cover and discovered the large conical structures that dominate the under-ice landscape."

"Dr. Blumberg's family has requested that memorial gifts be sent to the American Philosophical Society for the Baruch S. Blumberg Fund for the Lewis and Clark Grants for Exploration and Field Research. He established the Lewis and Clark Grants in 2004 (during the bicentennial year of their epic journey) to assist younger scientists and scholars with projects at a critical time in their careers. "I believe that a passion for exploration is deeply rooted in the American character, and it is regrettable that funding for field studies is so difficult to obtain," he said. Including this year's projected grants, the Lewis and Clark program will have supported more than 250 emerging scientists and scholars since its founding. Funeral services: Sunday, April 10, 2:00 p.m. at the Society Hill Synagogue (on Spruce between 4th and 5th), Philadelphia. Reception to follow in Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street."

Keith's note: I learned with profound sadness last night that Baruch Blumberg died suddenly yesterday. He was in a small meeting focused upon how to move humanity off this world onto others. His passing was swift - and true to form he was enthused and learning up until his last breath.

Barry was one of those people you only meet once in a lifetime. He was truly a transcendent person - as humble as he was accomplished. Barry was a true Renaissance man in every sense - one who I was deeply honored to call a friend. And he counted many, many people among his friends.

I spent more than one dinner with him, talking about biochemistry, cattle ranching, rock climbing in Wales when he was in his 60s - he even visited Devon Island at an age when most folks have given up travelling altogether.

Barry was a Nobel Laureate and was the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. NASA has never enticed anyone finer to join its ranks. Barry's choice for NAI went vastly beyond the norm - and Dan Goldin was the one who made that choice. Goldin entered into another realm of inspiration when he picked Barry to run NAI (Barry had a habit of doing that to people) and that decision will affect the course of Astrobiology for decades to come.

I managed to reach Dan Goldin on Barry's passing. He told me "The world has lost a great man. Barry saved lives through his research on the Hepatitis B virus. He also inspired a whole generation of people world wide through his work in building the NASA Astrobiology Institute. On a personal level, he improved my life through his friendship. Our planet is an improved place as a result of Barry's few short days in residence."

Sean O'Keefe told me this morning that Blumberg "impressed me as a man whose humility was only surpassed by his capacity to inspire a new generation of scientists to pursue the human passion to want to learn from everything around us. He truly was a remarkable man."

NASA is placing the work of another Nobel Laureate (AMS) on-orbit in a few weeks. Maybe something reminiscent of Barry Blumberg could be placed on it ... it would be fitting since Barry truly did know something about everything and yet still sought to learn more up until his last moments on this planet.

Ad Astra, Barry.

- Astrobiology at T+5 Years, Baruch S. Blumberg and Keith Cowing, Ad Astra Magazine
- Web of Stories - Baruch Blumberg - A field trip to Devon Island (video)

NASA's Spaceward Bound Goes to the Deserts of the United Arab Emirates

"Whether or not you remember the winter of 2011 as unusually cold or snowy, an adventurous team of experts will remember its intense heat, as they searched for microbial life between sand dunes in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They were searching for simple life forms that also may exist on other planets. The United States team consisted of teachers Mike Wing and Lucinda Land, NASA space scientists Chris McKay and Jon Rask, and education specialist Matthew Reyes. Together, they embarked on a high adventure desert expedition from Feb. 18 - Mar. 4 with UAE students and teachers as part of a NASA education program, called Spaceward Bound."

The Occurrence Rate of Earth Analog Planets Orbiting Sunlike Stars, NASA JPL via arXiv.org

"Kepler is a space telescope that searches Sun-like stars for planets. Its major goal is to determine nEarth, the fraction of Sunlike stars that have planets like Earth. When a planet 'transits' or moves in front of a star, Kepler can measure the concomitant dimming of the starlight. From analysis of the first four months of those measurements for over 150,000 stars, Kepler's science team has determined sizes, surface temperatures, orbit sizes and periods for over a thousand new planet candidates. Here, we show that 1.4% to 2.7% of stars like the Sun are expected to have Earth analog planets, based on the Kepler data release of Feb 2011."

Keith's 7:00 pm EST update: The following response from Dwayne Brown NASA SMD PAO was received by NASA Watch in quick response to questions asked this afternoon:

"1. How long has he worked at NASA, and at Marshall? Answer: 45 years, he started in February 28, 1966

2. Which division does he work for now? Answer: Hoover works in the Space Science Office at Marshall Space Flight Center

3. What is his title? Answer: NASA Scientist. He does not have a Ph.D.

4. Who funds him? Answer: Richard Hoover's salary is funded out of the Marshall Space Science Office and the Center Management and Operations budget. While the funding was not based on a proposal, the Marshall folks tell me they need more time to research funding specifics. Current management was not in place at the time. NASA's Astrobiology Program provided NO support for this work.

5. Did Hoover fill out NASA Standard Form 1676 or get internal review or permission at NASA MSFC to publish this paper? Answer: No. A SF-1676 was not submitted before submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology. Submission of a SF-1676 is standard. The SF-1676 on file is for a revised version of the 2007 article that was submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology. The SF-1676 was approved by Marshall's science management chain for re-submission of the revised article to the International Journal of Astrobiology. Hoover took the advice from a colleague in the astrobiology field to submit the paper to the Journal of Cosmology. No SF-1676 was submitted to or approved by MSFC management for submission of the revised article to the Journal of Cosmology. NASA policies state that papers on topics of this magnitude should be published in scientific journals that conduct rigorous peer review prior to publication. "

Keith's 7:00 pm EST update: How is it that NASA MSFC continued to refer to Hoover as "Dr." Hoover for decades when in fact Hoover does not even have a Ph.D.? Curiously, Hoover overtly claims to have a Ph.D. in the article in the Journal of Cosmology.

NASA Statement on Astrobiology Paper by Richard Hoover

"NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper's subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper." - Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington

Keith's 4:25 pm EST update: Just posted on NASA Watch in the comments section: "The statement "This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission."Is not true, The paper was rejected, after peer review. Rocco Mancinelli, Ph.D., Editor, International Journal of Astrobiology."

Life in meteorites? Study stirs debate, MSNBC

"Many scientists have examined thousands of meteorites in detail over the past 50 years without finding any evidence of fossil life," David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Ames Research Center, told me in an e-mail. "Further, we know a great deal about the conditions on the parent objects of the meteorites, which (not counting the few meteorites from the moon and Mars) were rather small, not at all like planets. "I would therefore invoke Carl Sagan's famous advice that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. At a bare minimum this would require publication in a prestigious peer-refereed scientific journal -- which this is not. Cyanobacteria on a small airless world sounds like a joke. Perhaps the publication came out too soon; more appropriate would have been on April 1," Morrison said."

Keith's note: This video, "The Sagan Series (Part 2): Life Looks for Life" is the second video by Reid Gower. You may recall that an earlier video of his (the precursor to this one) went uber viral a month or so ago with over 900,000 views on YouTube Alas, NASA was unable to find a way to link to that video then and I doubt that they will find a way to link to this one now. I would very much like to be proven wrong - but I am not holding my breath.

Poignant Video: NASA - The Frontier Is Everywhere (Update), earlier post

Keith's update: To be fair, NASA Is not ignoring videos like this. In fact with Mr. Gower's previous video they did try and find a way to link to it or acknowledge it. This is where NASA's notoriously inconsistent official party poopers, the lawyers, come in. The issue has to do with the sources of imagery and sounds that Mr. Gower has used. This video is a mash-up - a compilation of sampled images, music, and vocals assembled from a variety of sources. Although Mr. Gower has been diligent in listing his sources, NASA's issue is whether he actually has their formal permission to use these materials. The Fair Use Doctrine does enter into this - somewhat - except some works are sampled in great part - like Carl Sagan's voice and the background music. NASA has gotten clearance from the organizations that guard recording artist issues to allow things such wake up songs and other copyright items to be used since NASA is not out to make a profit and uses these works for education purposes.

Life is a montage of other people's stuff - but these are the rules that this one government agency tells itself that it must follow in this fashion. But as culture adapts, NASA needs to adapt too. This is not the first video to appear that NASA should pay attention to and it will not be the last. Instead of just staying silent NASA needs to explain why it cannot link to such things. All that continued silence does is to support the premise made by many (like me) that NASA doesn't "get it". NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Outreach Alan Ladwig has stopped by here to make comments on this topic. Perhaps NASA Watch readers could offer him some solutions to this problem - and some encouragement. He's trying.

What Do Kepler's Worlds Look Like - From The Surface? What might the sky look like on one of these worlds that Kepler has discovered?

Planetary scientist and space artist Dan Durda has a bunch of ideas. This is one notion - a piece called "Snowy Mountains".

NASA Finds Earth-size Planet Candidates in the Habitable Zone

"The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter. Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size -- up to twice the size of Earth -- to larger than Jupiter. The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009 of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler's field of view, which covers approximately 1/400 of the sky."

Six Small Planets Orbiting a Sun-like Star Amaze Astronomers, UCSC

"A remarkable planetary system discovered by NASA's Kepler mission has six planets around a Sun-like star, including five small planets in tightly packed orbits. Astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and their coauthors analyzed the orbital dynamics of the system, determined the sizes and masses of the planets, and figured out their likely compositions -- all based on Kepler's measurements of the changing brightness of the host star (called Kepler-11) as the planets passed in front of it."

NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Discovers Extraordinary New Planetary System

"Few stars are known to have more than one transiting planet, and Kepler-11 is the first known star to have more than three," said Lissauer. "So we know that systems like this are not common. There's certainly far fewer than one percent of stars that have systems like Kepler-11. But whether it's one in a thousand, one in ten thousand or one in a million, that we don't know, because we only have observed one of them."

NASA Mars Program Update From "Follow the Water" to "Seeking Signs of Life"

"The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC and NASA's Planetary Science Division welcomes you to a Mars Program Update starting at 10:30AM Eastern this Thursday, January 13, 2011 at NASM. The event will conclude by 12:30PM. It's free and open to the public, and if you're in the area stop by, but if you're not, it will also be carried live on NASA TV and on the web at: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv and http://www.livestream.com/mars"

Keith's note: Both @egvick and @AlanMLadwig are Tweeting updates from/about the event.

Keith's note: The event has been archived and can be viewed here.

Kepler Mission Discovers its First Rocky Planet

"NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system. The discovery of this so-called exoplanet is based on more than eight months of data collected by the spacecraft from May 2009 to early January 2010."

Video: Ke$ha "We R Who We R" parody - "Astrobiology

"Are we alone in the universe? Find out all about the search for extraterrestrial life in this educational parody of Ke$ha's hit song, "We R Who We R."

Keith's note: I suppose your reaction to this depends upon your taste in music, your age, etc. That said, I happen to think that this video is clever. It's also rather contemporary and even has lyrics about NASA SMD's self-hyped Arsenic/E.T. story ...

Kepler Goes Into Safe Mode

"On Dec. 22, 2010, Kepler experienced a safe mode event. A safe mode is a self-protective measure that the spacecraft takes when something unexpected occurs. During safe mode, the spacecraft points the solar panels directly at the sun and begins to slowly rotate about a sun-aligned axis. This safe mode orientation provides the vehicle with the maximum power, and limits the buildup of momentum from the solar wind."

Exclusive Interview: Discoverer of Arsenic Bacteria, in the Eye of the Storm, Science Now

"Q: So, NASA approached you about doing a press conference, and you thought that was a good idea? F.W.-S.: I wouldn't say I thought it was a good or bad idea. I'd never been to a press conference, but it made good sense to me that my mom should know what I'd been up to, and I love teaching. So, it made sense to me at that level, in terms of, again, bringing what we did to the public. But we weren't clearly prepared, in terms of understanding how it might be, again, with the new types of media that are really rather amazing, what was exactly going to happen."

Response required, editorial, Nature

Blogs and online comments can provide valuable feedback on newly published research. Scientists need to adjust their mindsets to embrace and respond to these new forums for debate. ... "Purists who hold peer review as the casting vote in such debates will read [Felisa Wolfe-Simon's] words with approval. But the problem is that Wolfe-Simon's reticence is the polar opposite of the fanfare with which NASA trailed her discovery to the public. In an advance press advisory on 29 November, NASA trumpeted an "astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life". At a press conference to coincide with the paper's publication, the authors reported a more down-to-Earth, but nonetheless radical, discovery, claiming that an arsenic-tolerant bacterium had rewritten the rules of life as we know them. Such claims were always likely to bring intensive scrutiny, especially as many scientists think that NASA has form for making extravagant claims in the field of astrobiology."

Something's amiss with aliens and arsenic, LA Times

"I believe in the field of astrobiology ... but I think this was overhyped," said Rocco Mancinelli, a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute based in Mountain View, Calif. "NASA should have known better." Editors at Science did a cursory review of NASA's news release, but with work piling up before Thanksgiving, they didn't give it a thorough read, said spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster. "In hindsight, I surely wish that we had," she said. Dwayne Brown, the NASA public affairs officer who wrote the release, defended it as a "factual statement." "Clearly 'extraterrestrial' is a buzzword, but there was no intent to hype anything," he said."

Earlier posts

Study on arsenic-based life takes a beating on the Web, Washington Post

"Linda Billings, a George Washington University research scientist and NASA consultant on media issues, said that based on the mountain of blogs and comments she has collected, one of the central concerns appears to be NASA's use of the word "extraterrestrial" in its initial release. "The fact is that NASA is involved in the search for extraterrestrial life, and this research had some possible implications for it," she said. "But clearly, that word brings out strong emotions, and we have to be careful about that."

'Weird life' researchers answer critics, MSNBC

"For the past couple of weeks, members of the Mono Lake research team have declined to respond in detail to the criticisms, saying that they preferred to address questions through a peer-reviewed process. But today, team leaders Felisa Wolfe-Simon and Ron Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey said they were providing additional information about the experiments "as a public service ... while more formal review of their responses to comments sent to Science continues."

Response to Questions Concerning the Science Article, "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus" , Felisa Wolfe-Simon

"A key purpose of scholarly publication is to advance science by presenting interesting data and proposing testable hypotheses. Understandably, the most surprising findings tend to generate the most intense response and scrutiny from the scientific community. Post-publication responses to original research, and efforts to test and replicate the results, especially in cases of unexpected findings, are an essential mechanism for advancing scientific knowledge."

Backing off an arsenic-eating claim, Philadelphia Inquirer

"The original announcement, made at a NASA news conference Dec. 2, seemed to break a cardinal rule of biology that all organisms need some phosphorus to survive. NASA researchers claimed to have discovered an exotic organism in California's Mono Lake that lived instead on arsenic, thus broadening the types of life that may exist in the universe. The news made headlines worldwide including a New York Times story that ran in The Inquirer on Dec. 3. On Thursday, the researchers issued a more modest claim. Instead of saying the microbes had completely substituted arsenic for phosphorus, a new statement says the arsenic replaced "a small percentage" of the phosphorus."

What Poison? Bacterium Uses Arsenic to Build DNA and Other Molecules, Science

Earlier posts

Citizen Scientists Join Search for Earth-like Planets, Yale University

"Planet Hunters, which is the latest in the Zooniverse citizen science project collection, will ask users to help analyze data taken by NASA's Kepler mission. The space telescope has been searching for planets beyond our own solar system -- called exoplanets -- since its launch in March 2009."

The Wrong Stuff: NASA Dismisses Arsenic Critique Because Critical Priest Not Standing on Altar, Wired

"What he fails to see or refuses to acknowledge is that Rosie Redfield is a peer, and her blog is peer review. NASA has bungled its presentation of this paper from start to finish. It makes worse by trying to dismiss critiques this way. This is the wrong stuff."

NASA's arsenic microbe science slammed, CBC News

"When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn't feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications."

Microbe gets toxic response, Nature

"The big problem, however, is that the authors have shown that the organism takes up arsenic, but they "haven't unambiguously identified any arsenic-containing organic compounds", says Roger Summons, a biogeochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "And it's not difficult to do," he adds, noting that the team could have directly confirmed or disproved the presence of arsenic in the DNA or RNA using targeted mass spectrometry."

The Right Place for Scientific Debate?, Columbia Journalism Review

"First there was the wild speculation about the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Then came widespread, sometimes misguided, coverage of the real news: discovery of a bacterium than can substitute arsenic for phosphorus, one six elements considered essential for life (which may, perhaps, expand the scope of humanity's search for life beyond this planet). Now comes the third installment in the commotion-filled saga: widespread criticism of the paper detailing the discovery, published last Thursday in Science, and an apparent snubbing of the media by the paper's authors and NASA (which helped fund the research), who rebuffed journalists' requests for a response to the criticism."

Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA's claims), Rosie Redfield

"NASA's shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that's only strengthened by my reading of this paper. Basically, it doesn't present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule)."

Astrobiologists: Deadly arsenic breathes life into organisms, Arizona State University

"Evidence that the toxic element arsenic can replace the essential nutrient phosphorus in biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium expands the scope of the search for life beyond Earth, according to Arizona State University scientists who are part of a NASA-funded research team reporting findings in the Dec. 2 online Science Express."

Announcement of Earlier Kepler Data Release--from June 2011 to 1 February 2011

"The Kepler project wishes to inform the community that it is moving the next data release date (originally planned for June 2011) forward to 1 February 2011. This data set (Quarter 2) is the first consisting of a complete 3 months of observations. It will contain light curves for approximately 165,000 stars (most of which are late-type Main Sequence stars) brighter than 16th magnitude in the Cygnus & Lyra constellations sampled at a 30-minute cadence. Three subsets of one-month each of [up to 512] stars were sampled at 1 min cadence. The shorter cadence data will be released on the same schedule."

Keith's note: Multiple, reliable sources within the Astrobiology community tell me that NASA's Astrobiology announcement tomorrow concerns Arsenic-based biochemistry and the implications for the origin of life on Earth, how it may have happened more than once on our planet, and the implications for life arising elsewhere in the universe. NASA has not found life on any other world.

That said, as a biologist, I have to say that this is exciting stuff. It shows that other biochemistries are possible - more than just "life as we know it" and that the possible places where "life" could exist in the universe are now much more numerous as a result. What other biochemistries are possible? I am certain we'll be hearing much more about this.

Keith's 30 Nov note: As has happened before, NASA puts out advance notice of a provocative major discovery, media advisory and speculation goes into overdrive with titles of articles such as "Has NASA found life near Saturn?" based on a single, speculative blogger post.

Calm down folks. According to Alexis Madrial, a senior editor at The Atantic (and used to write for Wired) posting on Twitter "I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that." followed by "I'm obviously not the only one. It's available to journalists with access to embargoed EurekAlert content."

An article by several of the individuals (Benner, Wolfe-Simon) who will be participating in the telecon can be found below. Is NASA's announcement related to NASA's announcement? Who knows.

Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere, Astrobiology, Volume 9, Number 2, 2009 via The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System (A copy of the full article can be found here.) Authors: Paul C.W. Davies, Steven A. Benner, Carol E. Cleland, Charles H. Lineweaver, Christopher P. McKay, and Felisa Wolfe-Simon

"Astrobiologists are aware that extraterrestrial life might differ from known life, and considerable thought has been given to possible signatures associated with weird forms of life on other planets. So far, however, very little attention has been paid to the possibility that our own planet might also host communities of weird life. If life arises readily in Earth-like conditions, as many astrobiologists contend, then it may well have formed many times on Earth itself, which raises the question whether one or more shadow biospheres have existed in the past or still exist today. In this paper, we discuss possible signatures of weird life and outline some simple strategies for seeking evidence of a shadow biosphere."

Then there is this article by another one of the authors (Wolfe-Simon) dealing with putative life forms that use Arsenic instead of Phosphorus in their biochemistry. Again, the concept of a "shadow biosphere" and thoughts as to whether this can be applied to extraterrestrial locations are discussed.

Did nature also choose arsenic?, International Journal of Astrobiology, Volume 8, Issue 2 via via The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System

"All known life requires phosphorus (P) in the form of inorganic phosphate (PO43- or Pi) and phosphate-containing organic molecules. Piserves as the backbone of the nucleic acids that constitute genetic material and as the major repository of chemical energy for metabolism in polyphosphate bonds. Arsenic (As) lies directly below P on the periodic table and so the two elements share many chemical properties, although their chemistries are sufficiently dissimilar that As cannot directly replace P in modern biochemistry. Arsenic is toxic because As and P are similar enough that organisms attempt this substitution. We hypothesize that ancient biochemical systems, analogous to but distinct from those known today, could have utilized arsenate in the equivalent biological role as phosphate. Organisms utilizing such 'weird life' biochemical pathways may have supported a 'shadow biosphere' at the time of the origin and early evolution of life on Earth or on other planets. Such organisms may even persist on Earth today, undetected, in unusual niches."

Are these articles related to NASA's announcement? Reliable sources within the Astrobiology community tell me that the announcement does indeed concern Arsenic-based biochemistry and the implications for the origin of life on Earth, how it may have happened more than once on our planet, and the implications for life arising elsewhere in the universe.

Close Encounters of the Media Kind, Columbia Journalism Review

"Posts at MSNBC.com's Cosmic Log blog, Discover's Bad Astronomy blog, and at the independent NASA Watch blog also tried to quell the otherworldly hysteria. (Further efforts have since appeared at the Associated Press and Time.) ... "This shows how important an experienced, trained and authoritative science journalism staff of reporters and editors is," AP science reporter Seth Borenstein wrote in an e-mail, responding to questions about the blog frenzy. "While the blogosphere has the luxury of speculating, The Associated Press seeks to be the definitive source through careful reporting and knowledge of the subject area."

NASA News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery: Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 P.M. EST On Dec. 2

"NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe."

Media/Blogger Exaggeration of NASA Astrobiology News

Ancient Mars Looks Cozy

Silica on Mars Volcano Tells of Wet and Cozy Past

"Light-colored mounds of a mineral deposited on a volcanic cone more than three billion years ago may preserve evidence of one of the most recent habitable microenvironments on Mars. Observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter enabled researchers to identify the mineral as hydrated silica and to see its volcanic context. The mounds' composition and their location on the flanks of a volcanic cone provide the best evidence yet found on Mars for an intact deposit from a hydrothermal environment -- a steam fumarole, or hot spring. Such environments may have provided habitats for some of Earth's earliest life forms."

NASA Survey Suggests Earth-Sized Planets Are Common

"Nearly one in four stars similar to the sun may host planets as small as Earth, according to a new study funded by NASA and the University of California. The study is the most extensive and sensitive planetary census of its kind. Astronomers used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii for five years to search 166 sun-like stars near our solar system for planets of various sizes, ranging from three to 1,000 times the mass of Earth. All of the planets in the study orbit close to their stars. The results show more small planets than large ones, indicating small planets are more prevalent in our Milky Way galaxy."

Surface Water Found On Mars?

NASA's Mars Rover Spirit Finds Evidence of Subsurface Water

"The ground where NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit became stuck last year holds evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis. Researchers took advantage of Spirit's months at Troy last year to examine in great detail soil layers the wheels had exposed, and also neighboring surfaces. Spirit made 13 inches of progress in its last 10 backward drives before energy levels fell too low for further driving in February. Those drives exposed a new area of soil for possible examination if Spirit does awaken and its robotic arm is still usable."


Seeking Signs of Life: A Symposium Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of NASA's Exo/Astrobiology Program

"NASA's Astrobiology Program addresses three fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth, and if so, how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and in the universe? Experts in a range of relevant disciplines will engage in an exciting day of discussions . . . . Are we alone? Confirmed speakers include Baruch S. Blumberg, The Honorable Daniel S. Goldin, David Grinspoon, Noel Hinners, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, and Steve Squyres."

NASA and NSF-Funded Research Finds First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet

"A team of planet hunters from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet with three times the mass of Earth orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star's "habitable zone."

Organics on Mars

Mars Phoenix Findings Help Explain Viking Lander Results

"Experiments prompted by a 2008 surprise from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander suggest that soil examined by NASA's Viking Mars landers in 1976 may have contained carbon-based chemical building blocks of life. "This doesn't say anything about the question of whether or not life has existed on Mars, but it could make a big difference in how we look for evidence to answer that question," said Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. McKay coauthored a study published online by the Journal of Geophysical Research - Planets, reanalyzing results of Viking's tests for organic chemicals in Martian soil."

First Directly Imaged Planet Confirmed Around Sun-like Star, Gemini Observatory

"A planet only about eight times the mass of Jupiter has been confirmed orbiting a Sun-like star at over 300 times farther from the star than the Earth is from our Sun. The newly confirmed planet is the least massive planet known to orbit at such a great distance from its host star. The discovery utilized high-resolution adaptive optics technology at the Gemini Observatory to take direct images and spectra of the planet."

Astrobiology Update

NASA Announces Wednesday Media Teleconference About Search For Extraterrestrial Life

"NASA will hold a news media teleconference at 1:30 p.m. EDT, Wednesday, April 28, to discuss the status of agency-sponsored astrobiology research, including the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life and the study of how life began on Earth. Topics also will include the quest for evidence of life on Mars, the habitability of other celestial bodies, and future technology research."

Keith's note: I just love it when PAO waits until the last minute to announce something that it could have announced days in advance. And then they wonder why the media doesn't cover things such as this. "Avatar", an Astrobiology-themed movie, has earned more than $2 billion thus far. Clearly the public really digs Astrobiology. As such, NASA's shyness with regard to promoting its Astrobiology research is even more baffling.

Planetary Stewardship

Pave New Worlds, Are We Alone podcast, SETI Institute

"The extra-solar planet count is more than 400 and rising. Before long we may find an Earth-like planet around another star. If we do, and can visit, what next? Stake out our claim on an alien world or tread lightly and preserve it? We'll look at what our record on Earth says about our planet stewardship. Also, whether a massive technological fix can get us out of our climate mess. Plus, what we can learn about extreme climate from our neighbors in the solar system, Venus and Mars."

- Ken Caldeira - Climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University
- Keith Cowing - Biologist, and editor of NASAwatch.com (podcast segment)
- Kathryn Denning - Anthropologist at York University in Canada
- Gary Davis - Director of the Joint Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii
- David Grinspoon - Curator of the Denver Museum of Science and Nature

Keith's note: James Cameron's "Avatar" has continued to break box office records, has won the Golden Globe Awards for "best picture" and "best director", and is now headed for the Oscars. There is clearly something that the public enjoys about "Avatar". At a time when NASA needs to re-exert its relevance to decision makers and the public, you'd think that there would be some effort to tap this interest in a movie about the wonders of extrasolar planets, astrobiology, and what may lay out there as we explore space - rendered in unparalleled detail and believability. So, how did NASA capitalize on this phenomenon? Answer: It didn't.

All I could find online at NASA.gov is this short summary of an article that was written by someone at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and this link to an interview with someone from MIT that aired on CNN. That's it.

Keith's update: This appeared at NASA.gov late in the day on Monday.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Meets Award-Winning Director James Cameron

"NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, right, and award-winning writer-director James Cameron, meet at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. Cameron, who is a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, has had a life-long interest in space and science. The two talked about public outreach and education among other subjects."

James Cameron On Past And Future Plans To Shoot In Outer Space, MTV

"I had been working closely with NASA and we were going to do a... joint mission. I was going to go up and work on the International Space Station with our 3-D cameras," Cameron explained. Unfortunately, the timing did not work out. On multiple levels. "I was pushing for something in the 30 day range and they were pushing for something in the 10 to 15 day range. We got partway down the road on that and, it was interesting, we were testing our 3-D cameras at the Titanic wreck site and September 11 happened. I wasn't prepared at that exact moment in my life, with a family, to go live in Russia for 12 months, which is what it was going to take to do all the training. so I held off," he explained, adding "just before we were about to ramp up on it again, then [Space Shuttle] Columbia went down."

More below

Keith's note: The NASA Astrobiology Institute recently notedthat "AstrobiologyNAI now has over one million followers!" on Twitter. One small problem: a close look at the followers for NAI's Twitter account will show that a substantial portion are fake accounts used for spam or other marketing scams. Just go through them and you will see. These accounts have no profile pictures or information, follow (at most) a couple of dozen accounts, and rarely if ever post anything. And when they do post something they do so once and it is often not in English - and yet all of NAI's Twitter postings are in English. To be certain, some of NASA's Twitter accounts are wildly popular and are of great value. But in this instance, the numerical popularity of NAI's Twitter account is due mostly to spam, not content. NAI has been informed of this issue more than once by a number of people inside and outside of NASA, but the NAI folks seem intent upon boasting about this number without understanding what it actually means. There are ways to scan and remove spam and scam followers. NAI should look into this.

New Study Adds to Finding of Ancient Life Signs In Mars Meteorite, NASA

"Using more advanced analytical instruments now available, a Johnson Space Center research team has reexamined the 1996 finding that a meteorite contains strong evidence that life may have existed on ancient Mars."

More Mars Meteorite ALH84001 Discoveries Published, earlier post

Keith's note: This is interesting news. Yet I see no mention that NASA HQ issued the release - or makes mention of it on NASA.gov, at SMD, or on its Mars page but JSC's website mentions it. Yet the one places where you'd most expect to find mention, NASA's main Astrobiology website and the NASA Astrobiology Institute website, have no mention of this press release or featured publications. Oh yes - it was published three weeks ago.

Curiously, NASA's Astrobiology program emerged back in 1996/1997 as a direct result of the announcement of the initial ALH84001 research results. How odd that the same topic gets such little attention today. Then again, the JSC press release does not bother to offer a link to - or mention of - NASA's Astrobiology program. Similarly odd.

Inevitably, if you dig deep enough you will see that this is all about turf - who funded what (or who did not fund it or who used to fund it but no longer does ad nauseum) and the buzz word(s) associated with that money. In my mind, as far as this research goes, "astrobiology" = "exobiology" = "life on Mars". NASA funded this research - not a subunit or fiefdom thereof. What are all of you stove pipe polishers going to do when all of the pending new White House-driven educational projects are launched at NASA? Are you going to be hindered by these self-imposed semantic and budgetary sandboxes when you try to explain topics to students?

Origins of magnetite nanocrystals in Martian meteorite ALH84001, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 73, Issue 21, 1 November 2009, Pages 6631-6677

"We conclude that the vast majority of the nanocrystal magnetites present in the carbonate disks could not have formed by any of the currently proposed thermal decomposition scenarios. Instead, we find there is considerable evidence in support of an alternative allochthonous origin for the magnetite unrelated to any shock or thermal processing of the carbonates."

Keith's note: "Avatar", a film by former NASA Advisory Committee member James Cameron, will debut across the planet on 18 December. Widely hailed as "ground breaking" the film may well push the boundaries of what can be portrayed on the big screen. The film centers around humans mining precious materials on a world in the Alpha Centauri star system - and the inevitable conflict that arises with the local (sentient) inhabitants. The film delves into a wide range of issues that intersect with what NASA's Astrobiology Institute and Exobiology Programs have looked into in one way or another.

Unparalleled simulations of an extrasolar planet with a whole new ecology - but it would seem that NASA is not really interested in this film.

Prepare for Contact, Letters of Note

"Here's a 1924 telegram from then Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Edward W. Eberle, instructing all Naval stations to monitor the airwaves for any unusual transmissions due to anticipated contact from Martians. August 22nd of that year was witness to the closest Mars opposition since 1804 (a mere 55,777,566 km), and as such provided desirable conditions in which to receive radio signals from the Red Planet. The man tasked with clearing the airwaves - a Professor David Todd - somehow managed to persuade both the Army and Navy to report any findings for a three day period, but failed to silence the country's private radio broadcasters for even two days. Needless to say, the three day exercise produced nothing but static."

Diving Through A Microbial Landscape in Lake Untersee, Antarctica

"There's not much in the ice-covered lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys to interest anglers looking to land the big one. But for scientists who want to know more about some of Earth's earliest organisms -- and, by extension, to recognize what life may look like on other planets -- those unique ecosystems represent a useful portal to the past. Dale Andersen, Dawn Sumner and the rest of their team will spend nearly two months camped out at Lake Joyce in the Pearse Valley to understand more about those behaviors. Several team members, including Andersen, will actually scuba dive in the lake, using fluormeters and microelectrodes while underwater to detect, measure and quantify photosynthetic activity of the benthic mats and obtain samples for lab work on the surface."

"This was my first Deepworker flight since last year, and I was pleased that flying the submersibles came back similar to skiing or riding a bicycle. We have been planning the science and operational metrics for this expedition for many months now, and it was both fun and exciting to get back into the water and execute the plan for real. I was constantly marveling at how cool it was to be seeing things that human eyes have never seen before, like exploring Mars or time warping back to pre-Cambrian oceans with today's technology."

Video below

Keith's note: Check out the photos from the first Deepworker Operations at the Pavilion Lake Research Project 2009. Astronauts and aquanauts doing astrobiology underwater.

Life On Mars, The Sun

"NASA will hold a science update at 2 p.m. EST, Thursday, Jan. 15, to discuss analysis of the "ALIEN microbes living just below the Martian soil are responsible for a haze of methane around the Red Planet, Nasa scientists believe. The gas, belched in vast quantities in our world by cows, was detected by orbiting spacecraft and from Earth using giant telescopes. Nasa are today expected to confirm its presence during a briefing at their Washington HQ. And the find is seen as exciting new evidence that Martian microbes are still alive today. Some scientists reckon methane is also produced by volcanic processes. But there are NO known active volcanoes on Mars."

Has Nasa found life on Mars?, Guardian

"If a newspaper headline ends in a question mark, the answer is almost always "no". And so it is in this case. Later today, Nasa scientists will announce they have detected enormous releases of methane from Mars. Could it be evidence of martian life? Undoubtedly yes. Is it proof of life on Mars? Certainly not."

Water and methane together equal life on Mars?, Times of India

"A report to be carried in Friday's issue of the journal Science details the observations, made using three telescopes in Hawaii. "The most compelling question relates to the origin of methane on Mars. The methane we detected is of unknown age--its origin could be ancient or perhaps recent," Michael Mumma of NASA and colleagues wrote. The methane appears to have been produced in plumes from certain areas on Mars as temperatures warmed, they said. "Living systems produce more than 90 percent of Earth's atmospheric methane; the balance is of geochemical origin. On Mars, methane could be a signature of either origin," they added."

Clouds of Methane May Mean Life on Mars, Fox News

"(American media outlets are not yet reporting the story because they're honoring an "embargo," a promise to not run a story until a designated time, in this case 2 p.m. EST, when NASA is expected to hold a press conference. The Sun "broke" the embargo, prompting other British papers to follow suit.)"

Editor's update: Classic exaggerated arm waving from the British press - as linked to by the Drudge Report.

Meanwhile, if this embargo information is true (I am checking) then I'd really like to know why news outlets in foreign countries are provided with official NASA news before American taxpayers - the people who actually paid for the research. Indeed, one of the papers above engages in soft porn with their "page 3" photo spreads.

Update: NASA HQ PAO tells me that they have not released anything under embargo. I have not been sent anything under embargo from anyone else so I do not know what is being referred to. But the Times of India is apparently quoting an article in Science magazine - so someone at Science must have sent something out that found its way to them.

This is NASA research and NASA PAO is not even in on the embargo. Michael Mumma is a NASA employee and the research is being announced at a NASA press conference. Very strange. Stay tuned.

NASA Science Update to Discuss Mars Atmosphere Activity

"NASA will hold a science update at 2 p.m. EST, Thursday, Jan. 15, to discuss analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity. The briefing will take place in the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E St., S.W., Washington, and carried live on NASA Television."

Astrobiology Update

Leadership change for NASA Astrobiology

"Dr. Mary A. Voytek, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, VA, takes charge of NASA's Astrobiology Program effective September 15 as Interim Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ."

First Picture of Likely Planet around a Sun-like Star

"Scientists used the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i to take images of the young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 (which lies about 500 light-years from Earth) and a candidate companion of that star.

They also obtained spectra to confirm the nature of the companion, which has a mass about 8 times that of Jupiter, and lies roughly 330 times the Earth-Sun distance away from its star. The parent star is similar in mass to the Sun, but is much younger."

Video: Astrobiology Rap

"Tune in for the all new 'Astrobiology Rap', written by Jonathan Chase for the latest Astrobiology Magazine European Edition (AMEE) -- the Nordic Invasion. Jon is an early career researcher in science communication. Multi-talented, Jon has undergraduate degrees in both Aerospace Engineering, and Science and Science Fiction. As a post-graduate practitioner in communicating science, Jon is actively involved in a number of science communication activities."

Video below

NASA Mars Phoenix Data More Negative On Potential For Life, Aviation Week & Space Technology

"NASA will announce today that new data from the Phoenix Mars lander indicate that it is looking less conclusive that soil analyzed by the lander's soil chemistry experiment is Earth-like and can support life.

An initial soil test by the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument indicated that the soil is highly Earth-like. The second test, however, is leading scientists to view the data as more inconclusive."

NASA: Reports of Martian-Life Announcement 'Bogus', Fox

"Note the [Aviation Week] story said very, very clearly three times or so, NO life on Mars detected and Phoenix can NOT [detect life] in the first place," Covault wrote in an e-mail."

NASA Phoenix Lander Spacecraft Analyzing Martian Soil Data, NASA

"Scientists are analyzing results from soil samples delivered several weeks ago to science instruments on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander to understand the landing site's soil chemistry and mineralogy."

NASA's Mars News Is Not Life, But Perchlorate, Slashdot

"In an update to the little green men story of not-life-on-Mars, NASA has twittered: 'The buzz this weekend was due to an interesting soil chemistry finding, still preliminary, but now avail here:' where 'here' is NASA Spacecraft Analyzing Martian Soil Data. The exciting bit: 'Within the last month, two samples have been analyzed by the Wet Chemistry Lab of the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, suggesting one of the soil constituents may be perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance.

White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life

"The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the "potential for life" on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology. Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability--the "potential" for Mars to support life--at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say. The data are much more complex than results related NASA's July 31 announcement that Phoenix has confirmed the presence of water ice at the site."

Tasting Water on Mars

NASA Spacecraft Confirms Martian Water, Mission Extended

"Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples. "We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. "We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."

NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander Returns Treasure Trove for Science

"This soil appears to be a close analog to surface soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica," Kounaves said. "The alkalinity of the soil at this location is definitely striking. At this specific location, one inch into the surface layer, the soil is very basic, with a pH of between eight and nine. We also found a variety of components of salts that we haven't had time to analyze and identify yet, but that include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride." "This is more evidence for water because salts are there. We also found a reasonable number of nutrients, or chemicals needed by life as we know it," Kounaves said. "Over time, I've come to the conclusion that the amazing thing about Mars is not that it's an alien world, but that in many aspects, like mineralogy, it's very much like Earth."

NASA Astrobiology Research: Astronaut, Scientists Explore Lake to Learn More About Life (Video and links added)

Editor's note: NASA Ames Public Affairs has dropped the ball again. They did not bother to mention the word "astrobiology", Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP), or the NASA Astrobiology Insitute. Yet this entire activity is all about Astrobiology. Nor did they bother to link to the Pavilion Lake Research Project's website or to the SETI Institute or the Deep Worker's provider, Nuytco Research.

Why they'd omit any mention of this signature activity at Ames is simply baffling.

A survivor in Greenland: A novel bacterial species is found trapped in 120,000-year-old ice, Penn State

"A team of Penn State scientists has discovered a new ultra-small species of bacteria that has survived for more than 120,000 years within the ice of a Greenland glacier at a depth of nearly two miles. The microorganism's ability to persist in this low-temperature, high-pressure, reduced-oxygen, and nutrient-poor habitat makes it particularly useful for studying how life, in general, can survive in a variety of extreme environments on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the solar system."

Spore: The Game

Astrobiology Meets the Video Game:Spore

"The soon-to-be-released Astrobiology-based game Spore by Electronic Arts (EA) is described as "an epic journey that takes you from the origin and evolution of life through the development of civilization and technology, and eventually all the way into the deepest reaches of outer space." Spore explorers can wage epic battles for survival in the primordial soup, meet, greet, and co-evolve with other creatures, be part of a tribe and build a civilization, build a space ship, and explore the final frontier."

McGill High Arctic Research Station (MARS) Status Report - Dale Andersen: 12 April 2008

"The photos here were taken yesterday (satellite receiver) and last week (aerial of the CSA camp). More when time permits. I have to go hit the road via snowmobile to get back to the McGill High Arctic Research Station (MARS) which is where we are staying. It is not far, but it is a bit cool right now -25C - which for this time of year is not too bad."

Report: Managing Space Radiation Risk in the New Era of Space Exploration

"For astronauts, however, there is one danger in space that does not end when they step out of their spacecraft. The radiation that permeates space-- unattenuated by Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere--may damage or kill cells within astronauts' bodies, resulting in cancer or other health consequences years after a mission ends."

Drug protects mice, monkeys from radiation damage, Reuters

"An experimental drug helped protect mice and monkeys from the damaging effects of radiation, researchers said on Thursday, in a finding that may lead to less toxic cancer treatments or an emergency treatment for radiation exposure."

An Agonist of Toll-Like Receptor 5 Has Radioprotective Activity in Mouse and Primate Models, Science (subscription)

"... Supported by grants CA75179 and AI066497 from NIH and grants from NASA (U.S. National Aeronuautics and Space Administration)"

Interplanetary Hitchikers

Life Forms Ejected on Asteroid Impact Could Survive to Reseed Earth According to a Study Published in Astrobiology

"In the event that an asteroid or comet would impact Earth and send rock fragments containing embedded microorganisms into space, at least some of those organisms might survive and reseed on Earth or another planetary surface able to support life, according to a study published in the Spring 2008 (Volume 8, Number 1) issue of Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. The paper is available free online."

Evolution of Mid-IR Excess Around Sun-like Stars: Constraints on Models of Terrestrial Planet Formation

"We report observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) regarding the frequency of 24 micron excess emission toward sun-like stars. Our unbiased sample is comprised of 309 stars with masses 0.7-2.2 Msun and ages from <3 Myr to >3 Gyr that lack excess emission at wavelengths <=8 microns. The results suggest that many, perhaps most, sun-like stars might form terrestrial planets."

Imre Friedmann

Noted astrobiologist Imre Friedmann has died, SpaceRef

"Noted astrobiologist Imre Friedmann died yesterday morning. Friedmann's main interest was the microbial ecology of absolute extreme environments - how life adapts to some of the harshest locations on Earth - and what this says for the possibility that life can exist in similar locations on other worlds. This research required many field trips to some of the harshest locations on our planet. Also, of note, Friedmann guided the developing careers of many of today's leading astrobiologists."

Comments? Send them to nasawatch@reston.com. Your Comments thus far:

NASA DEPTHX Robot Completes Test Drive of Exploration Capabilities (plus extra photos)

"In late May, a NASA-funded robot successfully navigated one of the world's deepest sinkholes. The mission could be a prelude to a future mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, believed to contain a liquid water ocean. The Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) is a 3,300-pound, computerized, underwater vehicle that makes its own decisions. With more than 100 sensors, 36 onboard computers, and 16 thrusters and actuators, it decides where to swim, which samples to collect and how to get home."

Father of 'Origin of Life' Chemistry at UC San Diego Dies

"Stanley L. Miller, an emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego whose famous laboratory experiments in 1952 demonstrated how the simple organic compounds considered necessary for the origin of life could have been synthesized on the primitive Earth, died yesterday. He was 77."

NASA Mars Rover Spirit Unearths Surprise Evidence of Wetter Past

"This is some of the best evidence Spirit has found for water at Gusev," said Albert Yen, a geochemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. One possible origin for the silica could have been interaction of soil with acid vapors produced by volcanic activity in the presence of water. Another could have been from water in a hot spring environment. The latest discovery adds compelling new evidence for ancient conditions that might have been favorable for life, according to members of the rover science team. David Des Marais, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., said, "What's so exciting is that this could tell us about environments that have similarities to places on Earth that are clement for organisms."

Astronomers find first habitable Earth-like planet, ESO

"Astronomers have discovered the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, an exoplanet with a radius only 50% larger than the Earth and capable of having liquid water. Using the ESO 3.6-m telescope, a team of Swiss, French and Portuguese scientists discovered a super-Earth about 5 times the mass of the Earth that orbits a red dwarf, already known to harbour a Neptune-mass planet. The astronomers have also strong evidence for the presence of a third planet with a mass about 8 Earth masses."

NASA's robotic sub readies for dive into Earth's deepest sinkhole, Carnegie Mellon University

"Bill Stone, leader of the NASA-funded Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) mission, said the 2.5-meter-diameter vehicle performed "phenomenally well" during early February tests in the geothermal sinkhole, or cenote, known as La Pilita. Carnegie Mellon University researchers developed the software that guided the DEPTHX craft. ... NASA has funded the mission to develop and test technologies that might someday be used to explore the oceans hidden under the icy crust of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons."

Editor's note: A very cool mission - one that embodies a synergistic overlap of science, operations, and exploration. And what does NASA PAO do? As has been the case with NEEMO: nothing.

Deep/Underwater Cave Environments: Comments by William Stone at the First NASA Risk and Exploration Symposium

"You do not get Brownie points for having your name on a tombstone. You have to come back. With that in mind, I have actually taken a lot of cues from how NASA trains its astronauts when preparing for, and staffing, expeditions. In the subterranean world, where we are about to go, it is a gloves-off environment. The exploration front is now getting to the stage where it is so remote and so difficult to reach that no matter what technology we have at our disposal, and no matter how Olympically-trained and fit the people are who are involved with it, we still get stopped. Every time you go for four or five months in the field, if you're lucky, you're a kilometer or two deeper into the planet. I am going to try to give you an idea here just what this world is like. I'm going to show here what would be the equivalent of summitting Everest and K2, but it's all going to be in one continuous trip proceeding down, in order to give you a sequential feel for the logistics and remoteness."

Stone Aerospace -- Design Philosophy (cool photos)

"StoneAerospace is a Texas-based company dedicated to the exploration and commercialization of the frontiers we know of and the discovery of the ones yet to come. We develop the tools needed to explore the frontier, to survive and work in it, to characterize it, and to exploit it."

Editor's note: Late last year, NASA ARC's GeneSat-1 was launched from Wallops Flight Facility. This small satellite was unqiue in many ways for a NASA project - it's small size - and it's payload - cutting edge genomics instrumentation. In addition, the operation of the spacecraft had a hefty student component. (See GeneSat News)

These three YouTube videos document many of the activities by these students at Santa Clara University and their participation in the GeneSat-1 mission.

Editor's 7 Feb update: Dwayne Brown at PAO got me the answer about Astrobiology funding: FY07: $31.3 million; FY08: $31.9 million.

Editor's 5 Feb note: A press briefing and telecon was held Monday afternoon with Science Mission Directorate AA Mary Cleave and her senior staff. I asked SMD's Planetary Science Division's Michael New what the funding situation would be for Astrobiology in FY 2008. At first he seemed a little unsure. Then he answered that it would be similar to what happened in FY 2007. No budget numbers were offered.

When I asked him (again) for specific funding numbers for the FY 2008 budget he paused, looking a little bewildered, and said that he did not know. Several of Cleave's staff then whispered between themselves, pointed to several 4-inch thick budget briefing documents, and then said that they did not know either. PAO's Dwayne Brown will be getting back to me with numbers.

Pete Worden 'Ames' for the Moon and Beyond , Science

"On how scientists can help: I'm an advocate of small, fast missions that could do 80% of the capability for 10% of the cost. What would be useful is for the scientific community to prioritize missions within the budget we've got, so we can get more science, better science, by doing more smaller missions and fewer bigger ones."

On exploration versus science: We are faced with a crisis in exploration. The vehicle we have is being phased out for a lot of good reasons, and there's an investment to make. Once the shuttle is phased out, I would anticipate scientific opportunities will go up quickly with a much more flexible system."

Mission Status Report: GeneSat-1 Status Report: 19 Dec 2006 12 noon PST (Mission Day 4; Biology Experiment Day 2)

"The results to this point are nothing short of SPECTACULAR!! All the subsystems appear to be performing flawlessly. Optics are making stable measurements, fluidics have fed the E. coli, the bugs are growing well and GLOWING, temperature, pressure, and humidity are stable at the right values."

Mission Status Report: NASA Starts Experiment on Orbiting GeneSat-1 Satellite

Mission Status Report: NASA's Orbiting GeneSat-1 Radios Date to Team on Earth

GeneSat-1 is Operational

Mission Status Report: NASA's Orbiting GeneSat-1 Radios Date to Team on Earth

"The GeneSat-1 ground control station at NASA Ames will receive data radioed from the micro-laboratory after it has completed its observations and tests of the bacteria inside. The biological test will last only 96 hours, but the GeneSat-1 team will evaluate the stability of the orbiting payload's systems for four months to a year. The Small Spacecraft Office at NASA's Ames teamed up with industry and local universities to develop the fully automated, miniature GeneSat spaceflight system that provides life support for small living things."

GeneSat Mission Dashboard, Santa Clara University

GeneSat1, Real Time Satellite Tracking, NORAD ID: 29655 Int'l Code: 2006-058C

Where is GenSat1?

GeneSat Launched

NASA's GeneSat-1 Reaches Orbit on Air Force Rocket

"NASA's GeneSat-1 rode an Air Force rocket into Earth orbit on Dec. 16, 2006 at 4 a.m. PST (7 a.m. EST) from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. The satellite's locator beacon has been detected, and data has been received as GeneSat-1 orbits Earth, according to scientists."

View Launch Video

Editor's 17 Dec 11:00 am EST update: GeneSat was launched more than 24 hours ago - yet ARC still hasn't bothered to up date its own website to make note of this rather important event. The ARC home page has a link that says "GeneSat-1 Set to Launch on TacSat-2 Mission" and the GeneSat home page itself (which the NASA press release tells you to visit) still says "TacSat2 launch delayed due to technical issue with the TacSat2 spacecraft." ARC PAO certainly knows that the launch has happened. However, it would seem that they don't really care to let people know. Too bad. Smallsats such as this mission could mean a lot of exciting new work at ARC.

Editor's 17 Dec 8:00 pm EST update: ARC PAO finally got around to updating their websites to reflect a major news story affecting their center. If ARC wants to be positioned at the cutting edge of Internet technology ARC PAO is going to need to learn how to be able to update their website after hours and on weekends.

Are There Martians On Earth?

Was Earth Ever Infected by Martian Biota? Clues from Radioresistant Bacteria, Astrobiology

"Here we propose that the radioresistance (tolerance to ionizing radiation) observed in several terrestrial bacteria has a martian origin. Multiple inconsistencies with the current view of radioresistance as an accidental side effect of tolerance to desiccation are discussed. Experiments carried out 25 years ago were reproduced to demonstrate that "ordinary" bacteria can develop high radioresistance ability after multiple cycles of exposure to high radiation dosages followed by cycles of recovery of the bacterial population."

NASA Scientists Find Primordial Organic Matter in Tagish Lake Meteorite

"Organic matter in meteorites is a subject of intense interest because this material formed at the dawn of the Solar System and may have seeded the early Earth with the building blocks of life. The Tagish Lake meteorite is especially valuable for this work because much of it was collected immediately after its fall over Canada in 2000 and has been maintained in a frozen state, minimizing terrestrial contamination. The collection and curation of the meteorite samples preserved its pristine state."

Outspoken: Mike Griffin on the NASA budget," Nature

"Deep cuts to NASA astrobiology - Griffin: "I did think astrobiology was less important than traditional space science. It had less intrinsic subject matter to it, and was less advanced."

Statement by Baruch S. Blumberg at the Opening of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe

"The President's Vision for Space Exploration requires astrobiology as a major, if not principle, science support. The National Research Council report, An Assessment of Balance in NASA's Science Programs, and NASA's Advisory Council noted that astrobiology informs many of NASA's missions and has a powerful appeal to students."

Astrobiology 101

The Astrobiology Primer: An Outline of General Knowledge - Version 1, 2006

"The Astrobiology Primer has been created as a reference tool for those who are interested in the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology. The field incorporates many diverse research endeavors, but it is our hope that this slim volume will present the reader with all he or she needs to know to become involved and to understand, at least at a fundamental level, the state of the art."

Astrobiology Update

Director's Corner - Message from NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Carl Pilcher, NAI

"The clearest expression that astrobiology doesn't "measure up" comes from the Administrator of NASA himself, Mike Griffin. Mike has testified before Congress that he does not see astrobiology as having the same importance as other components of the NASA science portfolio. He's also been quoted as saying that it has less intrinsic subject matter, is less advanced, and that its questions are more vague. Shortly before I left NASA Headquarters I had the opportunity to have an "elevator conversation" with Mike about some of his perceptions about astrobiology."

Saving Astrobiology

Carl Sagan Center Formed to Study Life in the Universe

"The proposed 50-percent cut in the NASA Astrobiology budget for 2007 is a clear reminder of how volatile government support for science can be,'' said Hubbard, former director of NASA Ames Research Center. "Our immediate goal is to raise $4-6M over the next 3 years so that we can sustain our top researchers. The longer term vision is to establish endowed chairs and create additional laboratory capabilities," Hubbard stated. As the Sagan Chair, Hubbard will provide ongoing strategic guidance for the new Center."

Astronaut Collapses During Ceremony, AP

"An astronaut from the space shuttle Atlantis collapsed twice Friday during a welcome home ceremony, a wobbly return that officials attributed to the adjustment from 12 days at zero gravity. Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper left the hangar at Ellington Field through a side door but was not taken to a hospital. Officials said she was doing fine."

Editor's note: Just in case some of you (like Mike Griffin) out there think that space life science issues have all been settled ...

NASA HQ Internal Memo: John Rummel To Become Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA SMD Planetary Sciences Division

"Taking Carl [Pilcher's] place will be Dr. John D. Rummel. As Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in SMD's Planetary Sciences Division, John will have overall program management responsibility for the Astrobiology Program, including the NAI and other activities in astrobiology and exobiology research and analysis, astrobiology instruments development, and programs to test and validate the performance of such instruments in a variety of analog field environments considered "extreme" for life on Earth."

Earth-like Planets May Be More Common Than Once Thought, University of Colorado at Boulder

"More than one-third of the giant planet systems recently detected outside Earth's solar system may harbor Earth-like planets, many covered in deep oceans with potential for life, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder and Pennsylvania State University. ... The new research effort may allow planet hunters to determine "rough limits" indicating where to search for habitable planets in known systems of giant planets, according to the team, whose research was funded by NASA's Astrobiology Institute headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Center."

Editor's note: And NASA's response to exciting astrobiology discoveries such as this? Why, they continue to cut astrobiology funding, of course.

Reader note: "Maybe we can do earth science in NASA as long as its not on our own Earth..."

NAI Gets a New Director

NASA Ames Announces Change in Astrobiology Management

"Dr. Carl Pilcher, senior scientist for astrobiology at NASA Headquarters, Washington, has been appointed director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) based at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. The appointment is effective Sept. 18, 2006."

NASA analyst to take helm of NCSU's graduate school, Triangle Business Journal

"North Carolina State University on Wednesday named a NASA senior policy analyst as dean of its graduate school. Terri Lomax, who also works as a professor at Oregon State University, will take over the helm of the NCSU Graduate School on Oct. 1. She succeeds Robert Sowell, who retired in June after a 36-year career with the university."

Mars Society conference report: Griffin and Elon not ready for K2 summit push, MountEverest.net

"How do we motivate students to study astrobiology if this science is not favored in the budget?" asked a teacher. "If they want to work for government money, they must look at what the government wants - not what they think it should want. If they want to work with something the government doesn't want, they'll have to find other money to fund it," Griffin stated."

  • What Griffin Thinks - and the Academy Says - About Astrobiology, earlier post
  • NASA Advisory Council Science Committee Presentation 18 May 2006
  • Saving Astrobiology at NASA, SpaceRef
  • No more protection, editorial, Nature (subscription)

    "It is bad enough that Earth science at NASA has already fallen victim to cuts and cancellations as has, for what its worth, astrobiology. Now an important rhetorical basis for resisting more attrition has been removed, feeding fears that a real understanding of how the climate works is not high on the administration's agenda. Earth sciences are still well represented in NASA's plans, but they have been symbolically set aside to further a vision that looks only outwards, never back."

    NASA threatens to axe science on space station, Nature (subscription)

    "I can't believe that they would discuss this with a straight face," says former NASA employee Keith Cowing, who broke the story on his website, NASA Watch."

    Meanwhile, Back on Earth - NASA climate-change research should not suffer because the president wants to go to Mars, Editorial, Washington Post

    "NASA is facing a real fiscal crisis. Even though the White House is demanding more, it hasn't given the space agency the funding it needs to build a launcher for the moon mission, pay an unexpectedly large bill for repairing the space shuttle and do everything else it committed to before Mr. Bush's Mars announcement. According to the space agency, NASA is diverting a little over $3 billion from its science research budget over five years."

    GeneBox Update

    A Closer Look at NASA's GeneBox Payload, SpaceRef

    "This first flight of Genesis is primarily a proof of concept mission for larger inflatable modules. However, it also carries some interesting scientific hardware, which could serve as the basis for future small free flying satellites - often referred to as smallsats or nanosats. Named "GeneBox", this small payload was developed by NASA Ames Research Center to test out new ways to perform in-flight genomic analysis of living systems. Indeed, much of what is being flown aboard this satellite is cutting edge biotech - the likes of which have yet to fly aboard the International Space Station. Future versions will be even more capable."

    Editor's note: The Space Studies Board has been revising its membership. It is interesting to note that in light of NASA's continued cuts to astrobiology and space life science that the SSB has added Jack Farmer from Arizona State University, an astrobiologist and James Pawelczyk from Pennsylvania State University, a Neurolab astronaut and physiologist. Also, former NASA Administrator Richard Truly has joined and Tom Young is now the vice-chair of the SSB. Of course Lennard A. Fisk retains his chairmanship.

  • What Griffin Thinks - and the Academy Says - About Astrobiology, earlier post
  • What Mike Griffin *Really* Thinks About NRC's Space Station Report, earlier post
  • Editor's note: The Mars Institute's Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse on Devon Island now has two webcams available for public viewing. One camera shows a view of the greenhouse and surroundings from the outside and the other shows some of the internal plant growth trays. Images are updated once a day. Click on image to enlarge

  • The Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse Field Season 2006: Mission Accomplished!
  • Follow The Water

    NASA Mars Picture of the Day: Gullied Recesses

    "This image shows gullies on the wall of a martian south mid-latitude impact crater. The channels in each gully head beneath an eroding overhang of layered rock, providing support for the hypothesis that someif not allmartian gullies result from release of groundwater to the surface."

    Like Mars, but with polar bears, Nunatsiaq News

    "The greenhouse is rigged with gadgets that monitor and water the plants mostly lettuce, with basil, radish and zucchini automatically. "The greenhouse this past winter was visited by polar bears," [Pascal] Lee said as he prepared to board a flight from Iqaluit to Resolute Bay last Thursday. "They knocked a big hole in the side of it." This season they'll give robotic gardening another try, along with other experiments."

    Research Activities in the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse - July 2006 Update

    "Our autonomous greenhouse in the Arctic produces and manages its own power, has its own communications system for command and telemetry, and a robust data acquisition and control system for making measurements and maintaining the environment in the greenhouse. This project began in 2002 and every year we improve the systems and make them more reliable and more robust."

    Bigelow Spacecraft Carries NASA 'GeneBox' for Tests in Orbit, NASA ARC

    "During this mission, we are verifying this new, small spacecraft's systems and our procedures," said John Hines, the GeneBox project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley, where scientists and engineers designed and built GeneBox. "GeneBox is an example of a low-cost spacecraft model that we hope will provide a short turn-around time for scientists, is responsive to their needs and that we feel will contribute to the Vision for Space Exploration."

    Editor's note: I find it interesting to note that at the same time that NASA is abandoning much of the cutting edge space biology research that was planned for the ISS, that the private sector seems to be developing an interest in this research - aboard a private space station.

    One therapeutic dose of radiation causes 30 percent spongy bone loss in mice, American Physiological Society

    "Astronauts lose 2% of bone mass for each month they are exposed to the effects of microgravity. So far, astronauts have not been exposed to the increased radiation of outer space, but that will change when they undertake a proposed 30-month trip to Mars, Bateman said. NASA has focused on radiation's cancer-causing properties and its ability to compromise the central nervous and immune systems. But the effect on bone health is an unexamined concern."

    Editor's update: I am certain Bob Zubrin will fire out yet another ill-informed rant about how these experts don't know what they are talking about. C'mon Bob, fire away.

    Bob Zubrin Steps In It Again, earlier post

    "We drove a half hour out of town to the first transect site. The teachers separated and went with different scientist to collect samples of the rocks and soil. Our sampling tools consisted of sterile spoons, plastic gloves and zip-lock baggies. The scientists are all passionate about their work here and the teachers are excited to be doing real science along side the scientists. We were still working out the kinks of cooperation and communication. We kept hearing the term "herding cats", which was a good description of the progress of our group."

    NASA's Science Mission Aborted, Technology Review

    "Although the International Space Station remains a budgetary priority, some scientists feel that its usefulness for carrying out scientific research has already been diminished, by, for example, the cancellation of a large centrifuge seen as essential for biological research. That cancellation, says Keith Cowing of the watchdog website NASA Watch, will "set back the ability" to develop ways to prevent the loss of muscle and bone by astronauts in prolonged weightlessness. And yet, he says, President Bush's exploration initiative is supposed to be leading toward trips to "Mars and beyond," where such measures will be essential."

    U of M study examines kidney stone prevention in astronauts

    "At least 14 American crew members have developed kidney stones in the last 5 years, and as missions become longer, the number is likely to grow. While astronauts have exercised in space to attempt to combat bone loss, the lack of gravity makes it difficult to achieve enough resistance to maintain their pre-flight fitness levels."

    Being There

    Astrobiology Field Report from Dale Andersen 19 June 2006

    "Keith: We arrived in Resolute Friday evening but we are still in here awaiting better weather. Its been cloudy with periods of light snow and rain along with low cloud and fog so getting north has been a bit problematic. But that is life in the fast lanes... We may try to get up to Eureka later today but I am not betting the farm. Hard to believe that we started blogging from the McMurdo Dry Valleys in the Antarctic nearly ten years ago. I know that "blog" along with the images have been available online at your astrobiology website since."

    Spaceward Bound program in Atacama Desert, NASA ARC

    "What are seven NASA Explorer School teachers doing in the Atacama desert in Chile? They are studying side-by-side with NASA scientists who search for life in extreme environments, closely approximating what they expect to find on other planets. Why the Atacama -- an inhospitable, seemingly lifeless, sun drenched spot that is probably the driest place on Earth?"

    Greenhouse Webcam 2 Editor's note: The Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse woke up several weeks ago. Located at the Mars Institute's HMP Research Station on Devon Island, this greenhouse has several webcams located inside which are now sending back images on a more or less daily basis. Webcam 2 looks south at the growing trays. Webcam 3 looks north at the heating system. Note: ignore the date stamp on these webcam images - apparently both cameras lost track of time during the several months of darkness when they were inactive.

    During fall 2005 there was some unusual activity in and around the greenhouse and the report listed below describes what is known to date. Another update to this report will follow soon.

    - 2005 Preliminary Fall Report (PDF)
    - Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse Update, July 20, 2005
    - Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse (ACMG): Frequently Asked Questions

    Guy Fogleman, Ph.D. To Become FASEB Executive Director

    "Dr. Fogleman was formerly Director of the Biomedical Research Division and Associate Director for Human Health and Performance at NASA, where he led NASA's biomedical and biological science and technology programs."

    Space Science Update

    NRC Report: An Assessment of Balance in NASA's Science Programs

    "Astrobiology provides the intellectual connections between otherwise disparate enterprises. NASA's astrobiology program creates an integrated whole and supports the basic interdisciplinary nature of the field. Further, the Vision is, at its heart, largely an astrobiology vision with regard to the science emphasis"

    NASA Advisory Council Science Committee Presentation 18 May 2006

    Astrobiology

    - These scientific investigations support NASA's strategic goals. In addition, this program is particularly attractive to the general public.

    - Science Committee recommendation: NASA's Astrobiology Program shuld have been treated in the same way as any other R&A program, and should be in future planning.


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