Recently in Astrobiology Category

Keith's note: Here we go again. This just appeared online at NASA. "NASA Scientists Confirm Water Vapor on Europa". Look how the article opens: "Forty years ago, a Voyager spacecraft snapped the first closeup images of Europa, one of Jupiter's 79 moons. These revealed brownish cracks slicing the moon's icy surface, which give Europa the look of a veiny eyeball. Missions to the outer solar system in the decades since have amassed enough additional information about Europa to make it a high-priority target of investigation in NASA's search for life . What makes this moon so alluring is the possibility that it may possess all of the ingredients necessary for life. "

NASA has a program that searches for life elsewhere - its called Astrobiology. The program has existed for more than 20 years. Once again there's a NASA press release about research results with blatant, undeniable relevance to Astrobiology - yet no mention is made of NASA's Astrobiology program. Nor is any link made to anything related to NASA's Astrobiology program even though the prospect of finding life on Europa have been among the most prominent examples of what NASA's Astrobiology program is all about. All that talk we now hear of "ocean worlds" - well it started with Astrobiology's interest in Europa.

But its not just other parts of NASA that ignore Astrobiology-related news, NASA's Astrobiology program ignores it too. No mention is made of this at https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ and the @NASAAstroBio Twitter account - with over 747,000 followers - has only been tweeting about one of a NASA staffer and his comic books for the past several weeks.

But wait: there's more: JPL issued this press release "Aquatic Rover Goes for a Drive Under the Ice" today. It also makes no reference or link to NASA's Astrobiology program, is not mentioned by NASA's Astrobiology program yet it is also filled with phrases overtly resonant with NASA's search for life aka Astrobiology.

"BRUIE, or the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, is being developed for underwater exploration in extraterrestrial, icy waters by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It will spend the next month testing its endurance at Australia's Casey research station in Antarctica, in preparation for a mission that could one day search for life in ocean worlds beyond Earth. ... these lunar oceans, such as those on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, may be the best places to look for life in our solar system. ... The ice shells covering these distant oceans serve as a window into the oceans below, and the chemistry of the ice could help feed life within those oceans ... We've found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top ... BRUIE will carry several science instruments to measure parameters related to life, such as dissolved oxygen, water salinity, pressure and temperature ... we only really know how to detect life similar to that on Earth."

And then there's this release "First Detection of Sugars in Meteorites Gives Clues to Origin of Life" also issued today by NASA GSFC. It also has multiple references to the search for life. It uses the word "astrobiology" at the end of the release and only links GSFC's Astrobiology page (not NASA's main Astrobiology page) and when you arrive at the GSFC Astrobiology page you are welcomed by a giant broken image.

Thursday's Stealth Astrobiology Event At Ames, earlier posting

Keith's 13 Nov note: Last month the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) tweeted about their mailing list telling people to join. I tried to join only to find out that I was already a member. This list doesn't seem to mail anything. I just stumbled across this Astrobiology event which is happening tomorrow at Ames: "Celebrating the NAI at 20". I never got an email about this. Indeed I am rather certain that NAI has not mailed anything out for months.

If you look at the @NASAAstroBio Twitter account there is no mention whatsoever that this event is happening . But the NAI Twitter account seems to want everyone to know that NASA has an astrobiologist/artist named Aaron at NASA. If you go to https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ there is no mention on the main page. You have to dig down to find it. There is no mention of it on the Ames home page or on the NASA.gov calendar. One would think that a 20th anniversary of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at NASA Ames would be worth a little promotion. This is really baffling. Its almost as if NASA's Astrobiology program simply does not want anyone to know what it is doing.

Keith's 14 Nov update: @NASAAstroBio finally got around to tweeting a link to this event - 2 hours after the event started.

Living Next Door To SETI

NO SIGNAL: Growing Up in Green Bank, West Virginia, Observer (scroll down to page 36)

"I grew up in Green Bank, West Virginia, at the center of the federally mandated National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), where interference like cell phones, wireless internet, and other devices are legally regulated. My hometown feels like another planet, full of opposites and tucked away from the world in a quiet spot. I grew up feeling no different than the average child, but it wasn't until middle school that I realized I lived in a unique area. Green Bank is a special town--the epicenter of the NRQZ, and also a site of fascinating technology used for astronomical research. Green Bank is home to what was, during my childhood, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and is now the Green Bank Observatory (GBO). At GBO, there are eight telescopes, but the most impressive telescope is the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or the GBT."

Going Off Source: Time Away With SETI In West Virginia, Astrobiology.com (1997)

"For the past several months I had been meaning to get out to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia to check in with the folks at the Gendarme Rock Climbing Shop. You see, I [used to] run their website, and I have been too busy to get out there - or "get vertical'" for quite some time. Just as this particular need to go out to West Virginia was becoming obvious, along came another reason: I needed to catch up with some SETI folks - and they were going to be in nearby Green Bank for a day or so, an hour's drive from Seneca Rocks. Two perfect excuses to escape the Washington DC metro area, and go off source."

NASA's Planetary Protection Review Addresses Changing Reality of Space Exploration

"NASA released a report Friday with recommendations from the Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB) the agency established in response to a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report and a recommendation from the NASA Advisory Council. With NASA, international, and commercial entities planning bold missions to explore our solar system and return samples to Earth, the context for planetary protection is rapidly changing. NASA established the PPIRB to conduct a thorough review of the agency's policies. Planetary protection establishes guidelines for missions to other solar system bodies so they are not harmfully contaminated for scientific purposes by Earth biology and Earth, in turn, is protected from harmful contamination from space. The board's report assesses a rapidly changing environment where more samples from other solar system bodies will be returned to Earth, commercial and international entities are discussing new kinds of solar system missions, and NASA's Artemis program is planning human missions to the Moon and eventually to Mars.""

Full report: NASA Response to Planetary Protection Independent Review Board Recommendations

- NASA's New Planetary Protection Board
- Planetary Protection Classification of Sample-Return Missions from the Martian Moons
- Report: Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes
- More planetary Protection postings

When -- or if -- NASA finds life on Mars, the world may not be ready for the discovery, the agency chief says, CNN

"NASA's next mission to Mars will be its most advanced yet. But if scientists discover there was once life -- or there is life -- on the Red Planet, will the public be able to handle such an extraterrestrial concept? NASA chief scientist Jim Green doesn't think so. "It will be revolutionary," Green told the Telegraph. "It will start a whole new line of thinking. I don't think we're prepared for the results. We're not." The agency's Mars 2020 rover, set to launch next summer, will be the first to collect samples of Martian material to send back to Earth. But if scientists discover biosignatures of life in Mars' crust, the findings could majorly rock astrobiology, said Green, the director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA."

Keith's note: Sloppy work from CNN. Jim Green is not the "agency chief" as the headline claims.Jim Bridenstine is. Nor is Green the director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA. Lori Glaze is. He is the NASA Chief Scientist. As for Green's comments, this article recycles quotes published by UK papers who are known to skew things and write articles about other articles. Now CNN is writing articles about other articles.

Oddly, while the article refers to NASA's search for life as "astrobiology" (which is correct), the Mars 2020 rover website never mentions the word "astrobiology" nor does it link to any NASA Astrobiology websites. If you google "Jim Green NASA" The first search result is a NASA page titled "Dr. Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director" so its not CNN's fault that they said this - I guess. 2 Oct Update - they fixed the link to reflect Jim Green's current position - but only after I pointed this out.

As for "not being prepared for the results" Green is entitled to his own opinion. I do not think this is NASA's stance on this issue. Nor is it what most astrobiologists I know think.

If NASA can't get is own story straight in terms of what its spokespeople and websites say and who is in charge of what, then how are news media going to be able convey an accurate message?

NASA OIG Follow-up to May 2019 Audit of Europa Mission: Congressional Launch Vehicle Mandate, NASA OIG

"NASA's renewed focus on returning humans to the Moon on an accelerated timetable means that an SLS will not be available to launch the Clipper mission to Europa before 2025 at the earliest. Given all of the foregoing factors, we urge Congress to consider removing the requirement that NASA launch the Europa Clipper on an SLS and allow the Agency to decide whether to use an SLS or a commercial vehicle based on cost, schedule, vehicle availability, and impact on science requirements."

"However, because of developmental delays and, more significantly, NASA's plans to use the first three SLS rockets produced for its Artemis lunar program, an SLS will not be available until 2025 at the earliest. Consequently, if completed on its projected schedule, the approximately $3 billion dollar Europa spacecraft (known as "Europa Clipper") will need to be stored for at least 2 years at a cost of $3 to $5 million per month until an SLS becomes available. NASA recently added $250 million in Headquarters-held reserves to the project to address these storage and related personnel costs. Congress could reduce risks to both the Europa mission and Artemis program while potentially saving taxpayers up to $1 billion by providing NASA the flexibility in forthcoming fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations legislation to determine the most cost effective and timely vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2023 or whenever the satellite is completed."

NASA OIG Audit: Management Of NASA's Europa Mission, NASA OIG, earlier post

"In addition, although Congress directed NASA to use the SLS to launch the Clipper, it is unlikely to be available by the congressionally mandated 2023 date and therefore the Agency continues to maintain spacecraft capabilities to accommodate both the SLS and two commercial launch vehicles, the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy."

Keith's note: NASA JPL issued a press release on Monday titled "Mission to Jupiter's Icy Moon Confirmed". Great news for the Astrobiology community as noted by the release - except that the NASA Astrobiology website linked to in this release makes no mention of this news (maybe they will on Tuesday).

But if you go to the link featured in today's NASA JPL press release about Europa Clipper - you know the "astrobiology" mission that is going to Europa to search for possible indications of life etc., Astrobiology is nowhere to be found. I looked throughout the entire europa.nasa.gov website. The word "astrobiology" is never mentioned once. The only related term is used to describe several participating scientist as being an "astrobiologist". But "life" - as in the search for - shows up more than a hundred times. Nor is any link provided to NASA's Astrobiology program.

Why is that?

How is it that NASA's 20+ year old program - one that recognized by the National Academies of Science in multiple reports and mentioned by name in congressional legislation - cannot be mentioned on the official NASA website for a mission that is overtly Astrobiology-themed? It really does look like one part of NASA does not know and/or does not seem to care what other parts of NASA are doing. If NASA cannot coordinate the interaction between some of its basic programs and organizations regarding this billion dollar mission how is the public is going to fully understand what this mission will do - and how other related work that NASA does in Astrobiology relates to it?

- NASA Makes Big Astrobiology Mission Announcement Without Saying "Astrobiology"
- NASA Leads The World In Astrobiology. Wow, Who Knew?, earlier post
- NASA Can't Figure Out What Astrobiology Is - Or Who Does It, earlier post
- NASA Is Incapable Of Explaining How It Does Astrobiology, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Program Works Hard To Ignore Itself, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Programs Ignore One Another, earlier post
- NASA Leads In Astrobiology. It Needs To Act That Way., earlier post

NASA's Dragonfly Will Fly Around Titan Looking for Origins, Signs of Life, NASA

"NASA has announced that our next destination in the solar system is the unique, richly organic world Titan. Advancing our search for the building blocks of life, the Dragonfly mission will fly multiple sorties to sample and examine sites around Saturn's icy moon. ... Titan is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet. During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon's atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life. ... "With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. ... evidence of past liquid water, organics - the complex molecules that contain carbon, combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen - and energy, which together make up the recipe for life. ... Dragonfly will visit a world filled ith a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself." ... The moon's weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on our planet. ... and exploring a near-Earth asteroid for the building blocks of life," said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division."

Keith's note: Look at these multiple references to one of the prime tasks of Dragonfly - to search for organic compounds on Titan due to their relevance to the possibility of life. Once again, for those of you who have not been paying attention: NASA has an astrobiology program and this is what it does. I was in the auditorium at the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) in Seattle when this was announced. A loud cheer went up (see video below). With all this blatant relevance to topics key to Astrobiology and broad enthusiasm for the mission from the Astrobiology community you'd think that NASA SMD and NASA PAO would use the word "astrobiology" at least once or link to the NASA Astrobiology program webpage. Guess again. Alana Johnson from PAO is listed as a contact on this press release. She attended the entire Astrobiology Science Conference. Either she was not paying attention to the topic of the meeting or she had no influence on the wording of this press release.

NASA complains that people do not understand the scope and breadth of its programs. Small wonder when NASA so effectively and deliberately ignores some of its own programs the way that it ignores "Astrobiology".

- NASA Leads The World In Astrobiology. Wow, Who Knew?, earlier post
- NASA Can't Figure Out What Astrobiology Is - Or Who Does It, earlier post
- NASA Is Incapable Of Explaining How It Does Astrobiology, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Program Works Hard To Ignore Itself, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Programs Ignore One Another, earlier post
- NASA Leads In Astrobiology. It Needs To Act That Way., earlier post

Curiosity Detects Unusually High Methane Levels On Mars

"This week, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover found a surprising result: the largest amount of methane ever measured during the mission -- about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv). One ppbv means that if you take a volume of air on Mars, one billionth of the volume of air is methane. The finding came from the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) tunable laser spectrometer. It's exciting because microbial life is an important source of methane on Earth, but methane can also be created through interactions between rocks and water."

Keith's note: This story on detection of Methane on Mars - a possible biosignature - has been featured on thousands of websites. By coincidence NASA is hosting the largest meeting of Astrobiologists on Earth. I'm attending it. You'd think that NASA PAO would want to link - and then promote - the visibility and synergy of these two events. Guess again. No mention at NASA.gov or NASA's Main Science page.

Look at the official NASA online feature about detection of Methane on Mars - a potentially significant biosignature - the sort of thing NASA Astrobiology program worries about. But does it mention/link to NASA's Astrobiology Program? Of course not.

NASA Can't Figure Out What Astrobiology Is - Or Who Does It, earlier post

"If you go to the main NASA science page (which makes no mention of "Astrobiology") and use the search function to search for "astrobiology" you get a search results page that says "no results found" but has some old Astrobiology press releases from 2008."

Keith's note: If you visit the NASA Mars 2020 website and go to the Science page it talks about the mission's strategy as being to "Seek Signs of Life" on Mars. That is what NASA's Astrobiology program does, right? Alas, this JPL website does not use the word "astrobiology" - anywhere. Not even in the Instruments page. Nor does this other JPL website on the mission.

Oddly If you go to the NASA Mars Exploration Program page on science there is a link to "Astrobiology" which refers to Mars 2020. If you go to the NASA Astrobiology page on Mars 2020 it describes the Mars 2020 mission as a mission with lots of Astrobiology on it.

If you go to the main NASA science page (which makes no mention of "Astrobiology") and use the search function to search for "astrobiology" you get a search results page that says "no results found" but has some old Astrobiology press releases from 2008.

Oh yes the NASA Mars 2020 website has two different addresses: https://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mars2020/ and https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/. Then there is another Mars 2020 webpage at NASA HQ which does not point to either of these web links but points to yet another Mars 2020 page at NASA HQ instead.

Why are these parts of NASA incapable of presenting a common description of this mission and/or its relevance to Astrobiology?

- Overhauling NASA's Tangled Internet Presence, earlier post
- NASA's Semi-Stealth Astrobiology Mission, earlier post
- Dueling NASA Websites Update, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Programs Ignore One Another, earlier post

Breakthrough Watch and European Southern Observatory Achieve First Light on Upgraded Planet-finding Instrument

"Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives, said: "We're delighted to collaborate with the ESO in designing, building, installing and now using this innovative new instrument. If there are Earth-like planets around Alpha Centauri A and B, that's huge news for everyone on our planet." "ESO is glad to bring its expertise, existing infrastructure, and observing time on the Very Large Telescope to the NEAR project," commented ESO project manager Robin Arsenault. "This is a valuable opportunity, as -- in addition to its own science goals -- the NEAR experiment is also a path-finder for future planet-hunting instruments for the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope, " says Markus Kasper, ESO's lead scientist for NEAR. "NEAR is the first and (currently) only project that could directly image a habitable exoplanet. It marks an important milestone. Fingers crossed - we are hoping a large habitable planet is orbiting Alpha Cen A or B" commented Olivier Guyon, lead scientist for Breakthrough Watch. "Human beings are natural explorers," said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives, "It is time we found out what lies beyond the next valley. This telescope will let us gaze across."

NASA OIG Audit: Management Of NASA's Europa Mission

"Despite robust early-stage funding, a series of significant developmental and personnel resource challenges place the Clipper's current mission cost estimates and planned 2023 target launch at risk. Specifically, NASA's aggressive development schedule, a stringent conflict of interest process during instrument selection, and an insufficient evaluation of cost and schedule estimates has increased project integration challenges and led the Agency to accept instrument cost proposals subsequently found to be far too optimistic. Moreover, Clipper has had to compete with at least four other major JPL-managed projects for critical personnel resources, causing concern that the project may not have a sufficient workforce with the required skills at critical periods in its development cycle. ... In addition, although Congress directed NASA to use the SLS to launch the Clipper, it is unlikely to be available by the congressionally mandated 2023 date and therefore the Agency continues to maintain spacecraft capabilities to accommodate both the SLS and two commercial launch vehicles, the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy. ... We also believe that requiring the Agency to pursue a Lander mission at the same time it is developing the Clipper mission is inconsistent with the NRC's recommended science exploration priorities."

The 2019 Breakthrough Discuss Conference: "Migration of Life in the Universe" is being held on 11-12 April. A live webcast starts at 800 am PDT/1100 am EDT at http://www.youtube.com/breakthroughprize. Details on the event can be found here. Live tweeting will be done at @Astrobiology

NASA Seeks New Options for Science Instrument on Europa Clipper, NASA

"The mission's initial planned magnetometer, called Interior Characterization of Europa Using Magnetometry, or ICEMAG, will not fly with the spacecraft because of cost concerns. Instead, NASA will seek options for a simpler version of this instrument. ICEMAG currently is in its preliminary design phase, and its flight hardware hasn't been built yet."

ICEMAG Update on Europa Clipper, NASA

"During Phase A the entire Europa Clipper payload experienced significant resource growth, (including cost growth) due to accommodation challenges. This is expected due to system and environmental challenges for this mission, and typically confined to Phase A. However, during the System Requirements Review/Mission Definition Review and at the subsequent KDP B gate review concerns were raised that further growth was probable. This was a concern for NASA because of the guidance from the National Academies received directing NASA to keep Clipper cost in check due to the importance of program balance across all of planetary sciences."

Keith's 23 February note: Last thursday NASA HQ issued a press release "NASA-Funded Research Creates DNA-like Molecule to Aid Search for Alien Life" which notes that "this new molecular system, which is not a new life form, suggests scientists looking for life beyond Earth may need to rethink what they are looking for. The research appears in Thursday's edition of Science Magazine." Mary Voytek, senior scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Headquarters is even quoted.

Readers of the press release are told "To learn more about NASA's Astrobiology Program, visit https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/". If you go to that link you will see that there is no mention of this press release or the research cited by the release. Nor is there any mention at the NASA Astrobiology Institute website or the NASA Science Mission Directorate website (which does not even mention the word "Astrobiology"). NASA's Astrobiology account on Twitter @NASAastrobio makes no mention of this press release or its research either. None of these locations bother to link to the actual research either ("Hachimoji DNA and RNA: A genetic system with eight building blocks").

Keith's 25 Feb update: https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ Just did an update. No mention of last week's release has been added. Meanwhile there are dozens of news stories that have been written about the importance of this research - and NASA's sponsorship of it. NASA's Astrobiology folks seem to be uninterested in being relevant. Oh yes: NASA JPL posted this Astrobiology release today: " NASA Study Reproduces Origins of Life on Ocean Floor". No mention is made at https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ even though this release also says "To learn more about NASA's Astrobiology Program, visit https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/". This happens since one part of NASA that does Astrobiology does not talk - or listen to - other parts of NASA that also do Astrobiology.

Keith's 26 Feb update: Finally. Someone in the NASA Astrobiology program noticed the dozens or articles in prominent publications about the DNA research announced last week. There's another important NASA Astrobiology story coming out in several days. Lets see if the Astrobiology folks are paying attention.

Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Bridenstine is making prominent mention of NASA's search for life elsewhere (see "We're 'Well On Our Way' to Discovering Alien Life, NASA Chief Says"). Multiple news outlets have picked up on his comments. You'd think that the Astrobiology folks at NASA would want to be talking up what they do. Guess again.

The National Academy of Sciences recently took note of how NASA runs its Astrobiology programs: New Report Calls For NASA To Expand Astrobiology Research "To advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should support research on a broader range of biosignatures and environments, and incorporate the field of astrobiology into all stages of future exploratory missions ... Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, is a rapidly changing field, especially in the years since the publication of NASA's Astrobiology Strategy 2015. Recent scientific advances in the field now provide many opportunities to strengthen the role of astrobiology in NASA missions and to increase collaboration with other scientific fields and organizations. The report finds that these changes necessitate an updated science strategy for astrobiology."

NASA replied to this report: NASA Making Changes to its Astrobiology Program "By the end of 2019, the Astrobiology Program will establish several virtual collaboration structures called "research coordination networks" (RCNs) that will replace the Program's virtual institute, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). With this shift, NASA's overall investment in the Astrobiology Program is not changing. Astrobiology is an important part of NASA's portfolio and Congress formally added Astrobiology as one of NASA's ten objectives in 2017. This will only change how this interdisciplinary research is coordinated between researchers."

Alas, while the agency looks at how to reorganize the way it conducts Astrobiology it still lacks the basic ability to do simple website updates to reflect its own good news. One would think that some focus on basic principles is in order before all of the deck chairs get rearranged. Oh yes, FWIW Google the term "Astrobiology". Look where my Astrobiology.com website ranks. Its not that hard to do the Internet stuff, NASA. Just sayin'

- NASA Leads In Astrobiology. It Needs To Act That Way., earlier post
- NASA Is Incapable Of Explaining How It Does Astrobiology, earlier post
- NASA's Semi-Stealth Astrobiology Mission, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Programs Ignore One Another, earlier post
- NASA Making Changes to its Astrobiology Program, earlier post

Keith's note: Yesterday I posted an item "NASA Is Incapable Of Explaining How It Does Astrobiology" about Astrobiology-related news from NASA that made no mention of NASA's Astrobiology program. I sent an email about this to all of the people at NASA who run Astrobiology. No response. But they did update their websites. Lets try again.

Two reports were issued yesterday. One, by the National Academy of Sciences (paid for by NASA ~$1 million) covers the issue of how NASA will collect, store, and analyze samples it returns from across the solar system, many of them with overt Astrobiology significance. The other report has to do with a NASA-funded workshop on how to detect indications of extraterrestrial civilizations via their technologies. There is no mention of this article at the NASA Astrobiology web page or at the NASA Astrobiology Institute webpage.

To be fair, NASA does publish a lot of stuff about Astrobiology. Its not like they are completely asleep at the wheel. Then again, they seem to be behind the curve when it comes to the broader aspects of Astrobiology beyond the quirks of NASA's internal budgetary management. They also seem to miss a lot of the broader impacts of the field Astrobiology extending beyond NASA's funding scope - but done as a result of the field that NASA can claim to have established. They are reactive when they should be proactive. FWIW I was there at the first Astrobiology meetings in 1996/1997. Alas, NASA seems to have lost its mojo when to comes to asserting its leadership in this field. Its time to change that. Google "astrobiology". In the U.S. the 3rd search result is my website Astrobiology.com. Maybe I know something. NASA has decided to reboot their whole Astrobiology thing. Maybe they will take the issue of being cutting edge in terms of discussing research and opinion - everyone's research and opinions.

Here are the reports NASA has not mentioned (yet):

Strategic Investments in Instrumentation and Facilities for Extraterrestrial Sample Curation and Analysis

"NASA's investment in new instruments to analyze extraterrestrial samples is insufficient to provide for replacement of existing instruments, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. If NASA does not invest additional funds into the replacement of current instrumentation and development of new technologies, technical staff support, and training for the next generation of analysts, current capabilities cannot be sustained, and the full scientific impact afforded by returned samples might not be realized."

NASA and the Search for Technosignatures: A Report from the NASA Technosignatures Workshop

"This report is the product of the NASA Technosignatures Workshop held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, in September 2018. This workshop was convened by NASA for the organization to learn more about the current field and state of the art of searches for technosignatures, and what role NASA might play in these searches in the future. The report, written by the workshop participants, summarizes the material presented at the workshop and incorporates additional inputs from the participants."

Sugar is Sweet, Essential to Life - and It's Probably in Deep Space, NASA

"New research suggests that the sugar molecule that puts the "D" in DNA - 2-deoxyribose - could exist in the far reaches of space. A team of NASA astrophysicists were able to create DNA's sugar in laboratory conditions that mimic interstellar space. The researchers believe their results, published on Tuesday in Nature Communications, show that yet another of life's critical chemical building blocks could be widespread in the universe and potentially seed other planets as well."

Keith's note: This article is about a topic at the core of Astrobiology - the origin and distribution of biogenic compounds and precursors. The only place that "astrobiology" appears on this web page is a tag at the end. The article is featured on the NASA home page but there is no mention of this article at the NASA Astrobiology web page or at the NASA Astrobiology Institute webpage It is just baffling that NASA puts things like this out which feature what NASA's Astrobiology Program does - without ever mentioning it.

The article originates from NASA Ames - the home of the NASA Astrobiology Institute - and the origin of NASA's Astrobiology program in the late 1990s. You'd think that Ames would want to plug their role in supporting NAI - they have a link to the article but no mention of the NAI. Yes, yes, I know that different funding streams fund different things but in the end its all part of NASA's Astrobiology efforts.

- NASA's Semi-Stealth Astrobiology Mission, earlier post
- NASA's Astrobiology Programs Ignore One Another, earlier post
- NASA Making Changes to its Astrobiology Program, earlier post
- Real Time Astrobiology Expedition News That NASA Ignores, earlier post
- Revious Astrobiology postings

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Antarctic Status Report 15 December 2018: Back at Novolazarevskaya Station

"The camp at Lake Untersee is now closed, we pulled the last three tents down early yesterday morning and completed packing our cargo into the sea container with the remainder going onto the other two cargo sleds. The traverse back went well and we are all back at Novolazarevskaya Station, now at the ALCI operated "Oasis Huts" just adjacent to the Russian Station Novolazarevskaya. We have stayed in the Oasis Huts many times over the years so it is like returning to our home away from home - warm beds, good food and hospitality and a place to wash off the last six weeks of wear and tear we have all accumulated. These huts, refurbished a few years ago, were built in the early 1960's by the Russian Antarctic program - the initial Novolazarevskaya Station - so it is always nice to be staying somewhere with an interesting history. ... All in all a great field season and we accomplished most of what we set out to do. Now it is time to head home, relax a bit over the holidays and then begin working on returned samples, analyzing data and planning for future work in this region."

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Antarctic Status Report 28 November 2018: Dive Hole Melting Issues

"The hole melter was returned, but unfortunately it still does not work properly and we are unable to use it to make a dive hole or melt out the light sensors we left in the water column last year. And while I am disappointed we will not be working underwater, we have moved on to other important areas of work that will occupy our time during the next two weeks. Over the last several days we drilled additional holes in the south basin as part of an effort to increase the accuracy of the bathymetry map for the lake, and to make measurements of ice-thickness; the ice-thickness data are to be used to model variations in ablation across the lake. We also used one hole to obtain samples with an Ekman dredge from the deepest point (100 m) in the south basin. These samples are currently having DNA and RNA extracted and preserved for genomic studies that will take place in the coming months and other subsamples are being preserved for additional geochemical analyses as well."

- 2018 reports
- 2017 reports

Keith's note: Dale Andersen and I worked together at the old NASA HQ Life Science Division in the 1980s. He and I have been reporting from/about remote polar and alpine regions for more than 30 years - Dale much more than I. Indeed, we think that we may well have had the first webserver in the U.S. directly updated from Antarctica back in 1997 - that website is still online here. You might find "How We Built This Website" of interest given the way such things are done today. Alas, other than my Astrobiology.com website and the SETI Institute, NASA's Astrobiology outreach people totally ignore this on-going research.

One expedition often leads to another. Something one person does resonates with something someone else does - some times years or decades later. Many times the place where you are takes on a name as a result. Those fleeting moments when these things coalesce and resonate is what makes these arduous expeditions worth the effort. Hopefully this tradition will continue when humans one day set foot again on the Moon, then Mars and elsewhere.

http://images.spaceref.com/news/2016/PIA20849.jpgTaking In The View From Wharton Ridge, earlier post

"Today I learned that a feature on the surface of Mars has been named after a friend of mine. This was not unexpected since I knew that his name was in the queue waiting for just the right feature to be discovered by the Opportunity rover. "Wharton Ridge" is named after Robert A. Wharton (Bob). Bob was born a few years before me in 1951 and died unexpectedly in 2012. I worked with Bob at the old Life Sciences Division at NASA Headquarters in the late 1980s.

During 1996/1997 Dale Andersen and I set up what we think is one of the first - if not the first - website updated from Antarctica where he and Bob were doing field research. One of the pictures he sent back was just too cool: Dale, Bob and Sir Edmund Hillary at their base camp at Lake Hoare in Taylor Valley. I was always taken with that photo - indeed it was part of what inspired me to take a companion photo of "Sir Ed" 13 years later in Nepal - with an Apollo 11 moon rock in my hand."

Keith's note: According to the official NASA Mars 2020 website: "The Mars 2020 mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars. The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself."

That's Astrobiology. Mars 2020 is an Astrobiology mission - the first overt Astrobiology mission since the twin Viking landers in 1976. Why doesn't NASA call it an "Astrobiology mission"? Why doesn't NASA even use the word "Astrobiology" on the Mars 2020 website - or elsewhere - to describe the mission? Yet the word appears in today's Mars 2020 landing site press release.

Jezero Crater Announced As Mars 2020 Rover Landing Site

"The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life."

Culberson's ouster could spell big problems for NASA's Orion program, experts say, Houston Chronicle

"NASA programs -- especially Orion, which is focused on putting humans back on the moon -- could be in trouble after Republican U.S. Rep. John Culberson lost his House seat to Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Culberson, a Republican from Texas, led the House Appropriations Committee that funds NASA for the last four years. And he's been a stanch advocate of science and human spaceflight over his nearly two decades in office, said Keith Cowing, editor of NASA Watch, a website devoted to space news. "Nothing is better than to have an advocate for space science and exploration sitting on the committee in the House where NASA funding starts," Cowing said Wednesday morning. ... "Culberson may be partisan, but he's a clear advocate for science," Cowing said. ... Still, it's a shame to lose Culberson, Cowing said, because "so few people are championing science and exploration missions and putting their partisan stances aside, but here's Culberson forcefully looking for life elsewhere."

"The question is how will that affect NASA's space science portfolio?""

Some takeaways for science from yesterday's U.S. elections, Science

"Representative John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs a spending panel that funds NASA and the National Science Foundation, lost to Democrat Lizzie Fletcher. Culberson has been a major advocate of NASA's Europa Clipper mission to a jovian moon; his defeat could mean the project will face obstacles."

What the 2018 midterms mean for NASA and planetary science, Planetary Society

"Europa Clipper, the mission currently in formulation that would fly by Europa dozens of times, is likely to continue without Culberson's support. NASA has formally endorsed the mission, and it is highly ranked by the planetary science decadal survey report. If pressed, I would say the odds of Europa Clipper launching on an SLS have now dropped considerably, and its launch date also now likely to be in the mid-2020s as opposed to 2022. I have a hard time seeing how the Europa lander project continues without Culberson, because NASA has not formally requested the mission, and it lacks consensus support from the scientific community. Culberson had been planning -- and still may be able to -- allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort in fiscal year 2019, but no other member of Congress is likely to pick up that effort in 2020 or beyond."

Keith's note: Looks like Planetary Society wants you to think that its time to give up on the exploration of Europa.

NASA Awards Grant for New Life Detection Project, NASA GSFC

"NASA has awarded funding for a new interdisciplinary project called the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures (LAB). The award, totaling nearly $7 million dollars, will be used to develop new, non-Earth like life detection approaches for use on Mars and on Jupiter and Saturn's icy moons."

NASA Making Changes to its Astrobiology Program, earlier post

"To better support the broad, interdisciplinary field of astrobiology - the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe - NASA is announcing a new programmatic infrastructure for the Astrobiology Program."

New Report Calls For NASA To Expand Astrobiology Research, earlier post

"To advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should support research on a broader range of biosignatures and environments, and incorporate the field of astrobiology into all stages of future exploratory missions, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine."

Keith's note: The people at the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures (LAB) just got $7m from NASA - specifically from NASA GSFC. Even though this is overtly Astrobiology-related, the official NASA press release makes *zero* mention of "Astrobiology". The grantee makes no mention of anything related to NASA Astrobiology on their website. In addition, no mention is made of this Astrobiology-rich grant award at https://astrobiology.nasa.gov, https://nai.nasa.gov, or https://science.nasa.gov

I'm really shaking my head at this one since this entire effort is 200% about Astrobiology - and it resonates with what the recent NAS report and Congress want NASA to be doing with regard to Astrobiology - specifically with regard to Europa. If NASA is going to be re-organizing its Astrobiology research, a good place to start would be on super simple things like this. One hand does not seem to know - or care - what the other is doing in Astrobiology with NASA funding.

NASA's Astrobiology Program Evolving to Meet the Future, NASA

"To better support the broad, interdisciplinary field of astrobiology - the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe - NASA is announcing a new programmatic infrastructure for the Astrobiology Program."

"By the end of 2019, the Astrobiology Program will establish several virtual collaboration structures called "research coordination networks" (RCNs) that will replace the Program's virtual institute, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). With this shift, NASA's overall investment in the Astrobiology Program is not changing. Astrobiology is an important part of NASA's portfolio and Congress formally added Astrobiology as one of NASA's ten objectives in 2017. This will only change how this interdisciplinary research is coordinated between researchers."

For the 7th Congressional District: Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, opinion, Houston Chronicle

"It's not that Culberson doesn't care about water. He does. But most of the time, he seems to care a bit more about the water on Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter, than he does the water in the Addicks and Barker dams. Or in our bayous. Or in our homes. Culberson has expended untold political capital trying to force NASA to send probes to Europa in search of alien life. That's an admirable scientific mission, even if some planetary researchers think the limited resources could be better spent. Here on Earth, Houstonians can rest assured that Fletcher will prioritize human life over the extraterrestrial. That includes life-saving flooding policies that emphasize prevention over costly recovery."

Keith's note: Rep. Culberson has been a tireless champion of the exploration of Europa, Astrobiology, SETI, and interstellar exploration. If the House flips Rep. Culberson will lose his House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies chairmanship. With that will go his overt advocacy and the ability to use that advocacy as chair to push things through the appropriations process. Rep. José Serrano, New York is the ranking member of the subcommittee and is poised to take over as chair. Serrano is not known for any overt support for these things - and he is certainly not the active advocate that Culberson has been. Elections have consequences.

Meanwhile, a PAC supporting Culberson's opponent is running a goofy ad that dumps on him for supporting space science at NASA - some of which studies climate change. Based on this ad Culberson's opponent is apparently against funding NASA. This is an odd stance to take in an area where NASA is a major economic force.

NASA Should Expand the Search for Life in the Universe and Make Astrobiology an Integral Part of its Missions, Says New Report

"To advance the search for life in the universe, NASA should support research on a broader range of biosignatures and environments, and incorporate the field of astrobiology into all stages of future exploratory missions, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, is a rapidly changing field, especially in the years since the publication of NASA's Astrobiology Strategy 2015. Recent scientific advances in the field now provide many opportunities to strengthen the role of astrobiology in NASA missions and to increase collaboration with other scientific fields and organizations. The report finds that these changes necessitate an updated science strategy for astrobiology."

Technosignatures Workshop: Looking at Searching for Life Beyond Earth, NASA

"In April 2018, new interest arose in Congress for NASA to begin supporting the scientific search for technosignatures as part of the agency's search for life. As part of that effort, the agency is hosting the NASA Technosignatures Workshop in Houston on Sept. 26-28, 2018, with the purpose of assessing the current state of the field, the most promising avenues of research in technosignatures and where investments could be made to advance the science. A major goal is to identify how NASA could best support this endeavor through partnerships with private and philanthropic organizations."

Webcast

Keith's note: Something worth watching in advance of this workshop (which will be webcast). Watch this on a large screen with the sound turned up.

A Stunning Short Video: "Scavenger", Astrobiology.com

"In 1977 NASA launched two golden records into deep space on the Voyager I and II probes. Having left our solar system, they are the most distant human-made objects. The records carry sounds and images of our planet and human brainwaves."

Could November elections scramble a controversial U.S. mission to a frozen moon?, Science

"Culberson's lander has been somewhat controversial among scientists because it hasn't gone through NASA's traditional selection and vetting process. And today, researchers at an agency advisory meeting debated whether the congressional elections in November could bring a new lander-related headache: the defeat of Culberson, who is facing a tough re-election contest. If Culberson loses, NASA risks becoming "locked in" to an expensive and complicated project that lacks a key champion in Congress, one researcher worried.

"The science goals of the Europa lander do not follow from our current knowledge of Europa," said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Although there is abundant ice for a lander to sample on Europa, he suggested, there is no concrete evidence of other ingredients necessary for life, such as carbon, nitrogen, biologically useful energy, or organic molecules. But given that the lander is already receiving money, he concluded in an about-face, scientists should support it. "A bad life detection mission is better than no life detection mission," he said."

Keith's note: With regard to the frank commets by participants in the NASA Outer Planets Assessment Group meeting as presented in this Science article: the event was open and on the record and news media were listening in. Based on this article one can easily get the impression that the Europa Lander is viewed by some NASA scientists as having little value other than political - but its funded so - hey, lets run with it and take the money. The politicians who support this mission are viewed as disposable i.e. if one is not re-elected or the House flips and they lose their committee chairmanship, another politician can be found to support a given pet NASA/JPL/SwRI/etc. mission. This may be true in a cynical sense, but I feel silly having to remind a bunch of otherwise smart people that they are saying things in a not-so-smart context. The politicians are listening. What are they and their staff supposed to think when they hear this stuff? They stick their necks out to listen to the science community, support missions, get the money year after year, fight off enemies, and sign NASA's praises and yet the ever-so-clever scientists at NASA sit in their little meetings and try to out-strategize the actual decision makers. People at NASA are never satisfied with good enough and can't fight the urge to complain when their particular science thing is not the way they want it to be. This behavior never ends well for NASA.

A note of science clarification: Chris McKay is quoted as saying "A bad life detection mission is better than no life detection mission." The Europa Lander is not a "life detection mission" any more than Europa Clipper is. Reading the Europa Lander Study 2016 Report it becomes immediately and abundantly clear that this mission is looking for biosignatures - not overt life detection. This may sound confusing but there is a big difference. Biosignatures are a range of measurements of substances and conditions known to be produced (most likely if not exclusively) by Earth life. But any one biosignature is not necessarily a solid indicator of life (past or present). Indeed, in many cases organic molecules associated with life (biosignatures) can also be formed naturally by chemical processes (abiotic) that do not involve life at all. But data taken from a series of biosignatures, repeatedly taken in various locations over time can be used to point to life's increasing probability - or absence. Short of actually seeing a life form and directly measuring its chemistry detecting life on another world is not going to be a simple, one shot "detection" process. To understand the current NASA Astrobiology approach to searching for biosignatures please read the 2018 NASA-authored paper "The Ladder of Life Detection"

You can be assured that future meetings of NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group will have many more people listening in. NASA people need to learn when to speak their minds and when to sit down and shut up. This has nothing to do with transparency. It has everything to do with common sense.

Report: Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes

"Planetary protection policies are facing unprecedented challenges as NASA and other national and international space agencies move forward on missions such as Mars Sample Return and exploration campaigns to the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. NASA also does not currently have a planetary protection policy in place regarding human exploration to Mars, which could take place in the 2030s. Moreover, the current U.S. government process to oversee samples returned from Mars and elsewhere dates back to the Apollo era and is out of date. The committee recommended that NASA's agency-wide planetary protection strategic plan prepare for the policy development challenges that sample return and human missions to Mars are creating, as well as revise or replace its provisions for engaging relevant federal agencies in developing protection policies for returned samples."

As Space Becomes a Busy Place, NASA Bolsters Its Planet-Contamination Police

"[NASA PLanetary Protection Officer Lisa] Pratt's debut comes just as NASA's Office of Planetary Protection itself goes through a more profound transition. Back in July 2017 NASA announced the office was being transferred from the Science Mission Directorate to NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance in Washington, D.C. That move, agency officials said, will inject more engineering rigor into the biological contamination control for outbound and inbound planetary spacecraft."

Old Data Reveal New Evidence of Europa Plumes, NASA

"Scientists re-examining data from an old mission bring new insights to the tantalizing question of whether Jupiter's moon Europa has the ingredients to support life. The data provide independent evidence that the moon's subsurface liquid water reservoir may be venting plumes of water vapor above its icy shell."

Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures, Nature Astronomy

"Here, we report in-situ evidence of a plume on Europa from the magnetic field and plasma wave observations acquired on Galileo's closest encounter with the moon. During this flyby, which dropped below 400 km altitude, the magnetometer recorded an approximately 1,000-kilometre-scale field rotation and a decrease of over 200 nT in field magnitude, and the Plasma Wave Spectrometer9 registered intense localized wave emissions indicative of a brief but substantial increase in plasma density. We show that the location, duration and variations of the magnetic field and plasma wave measurements are consistent with the interaction of Jupiter's corotating plasma with Europa if a plume with characteristics inferred from Hubble images were erupting from the region of Europa's thermal anomalies. These results provide strong independent evidence of the presence of plumes at Europa."

An Interesting Picture From Mars

"NASA recently posted an image taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. A reader from Australia contacted me to point out some curious structures within the rock featured in that image. I get a lot of emails like this. Normally these emails include something that the reader has totally distorted using Photoshop or contains some blurry shape on Mars that reminds them of a household appliance or cute little animal. I am a biologist and used to work at NASA's life science division and have done some fossil collecting in the field. So I've looked at things before that look like they are fossils only to determine that they are the result of non-biological processes. I noticed something curious about this image right away. ... I have sent an inquiry to NASA. Let's see what they say. I'll include their response in a revised version of this posting."

Keith's update: My original source in Australia heard from someone@nasa to the effect that these markings are the result of the laser used to analyze rocks but that the markings look different this time. I am still awaiting an official response directly from NASA. Today's lesson: when looking for life on another world it is important to remember what is happening on both sides of the microscope.

Breakthrough Listen Releases Initial Results and Data from Observations of 'Oumuamua

"Breakthrough Listen - the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe - is reporting preliminary results and making initial data available from its observations of the "interstellar visitor" 'Oumuamua. No evidence of artificial signals emanating from the object so far detected by the Green Bank Telescope, but monitoring and analysis continue. Initial data are available for public inspection in the Breakthrough Listen archive."

http://images.spaceref.com/news/2017/oodale6deca.jpg

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Antarctic Status Report 6 December 2017: Traverse to Novolazarevskaya Station

"Dale Andersen sent this via inReach on December 6, 2017 2:47:47 AM EST "Heading back to Novo in an hour nice sunny day. I'm starting my traverse, follow along at my MapShare https://share.garmin.com/DaleAndersen " Dale sent this message from: Lat -71.332995 Lon 13.45293."

http://images.spaceref.com/news/2017/daleok.jpg
Keith's 10:48 am EST update: Dale and his traverse team have arrived at Novolazarevskaya Station. "December 6, 2017 10:48:39 AM EST "Now at novo all ok" (click on image to enlarge)

Keith's 1:40 pm EST update: Just got a phone call from Dale:

Keith's note: Dale Andersen and I have been reporting from remote polar and alpine regions for more than 20 years - Dale much more than I. Indeed, we think that we may well have had the first webserver in the U.S. directly updated from Antarctica back in 1997 - that website is still online here. When researchers go to remote locations to conduct NASA-funded research and engage in dangerous procedures (drilling though meters of ice and then diving underneath) in search of clues to what form of life could be possible on worlds such as Mars, you'd think that NASA would pay attention. I have been posting Dale's reports almost daily for the past month. Speaking from personal experience reporting from Devon Island and Everest Base Camp it takes a lot of discipline and effort to send reports back to civilization - especially when your comms are limited such as they are at Lake Untersee, Antartica. Add in hurricane force winds and brutal temperatures and its not like texting from your iPhone.

http://images.spaceref.com/news/2017/dale3.jpgYet if you look at the webpages of NASA Science Mission Directorate, NASA Astrobiology, the NASA Astrobiology Institute and SETI Institute there is no mention of these daily reports that Dale diligently sends back from his tent in Antarctica. But I do post them here and on my astrobiology.com website (which is ranked 3rd on Google search for "astrobiology") so its not like he's getting no visibility.

All too often NASA sponsors research where teams of actual explorers engage in dangerous activities to conduct astrobiology field research so as to further the whole #JourneyToMars thing and yet no one at NASA bothers to pay attention. This mindset is not just limited to Dale. Much of the field work like this never gets any mention. People would be amazed at the things that NASA never bothers to mention where it is involved directly and/or indirectly. But astronauts wearing funny t-shirts on ISS? That warrants a news story with video.

Dale is heading back to Novolazarevskaya Station (check his location live) and should be back in the States in time for Christmas. And there will be cool photos and other things I hope to post.

Earlier reports

- 29 November 2017: Blizzard Conditions
- 28 November 2017: Last Week at Lake Untersee
- 26 November 2017: Busy Days at Lake Untersee
- 23 November 2017: High Winds
- 22 November 2017: Nice Weather
- 20 November 2017: Preparing Diving Gear
- 19 November 2017: Bad Weather
- 15 November 2017: Deploying Instruments
- 14 November 2017: Setting Up Camp
- 11 November 2017: Arrival at Lake Untersee
- 8 November 2017: More Snow
- 5 November 2017: Buran!
- 4 November 2017: Traverse Preparations

Going Off Source: Time Away With SETI In West Virginia

"20 years ago I made a trip to West Virginia to hang out with SETI researcher Jill Tarter and see how she searched the skies for evidence of life elsewhere. The region is very familiar to me since my wife and I have spent a lot of time there rock climbing and camping. What unfolded was part camping trip, part astronomy class, cruising around in diesel taxis, and a strange collision of ancient and modern hardware. More thoughts at the end of this story."

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Antarctic Status Report 28 November 2017: Last Week at Lake Untersee

"We are in our last week of work here at Lake Untersee before heading back to Novo on the 6th. Hope to get in a few more dives for sample collection and imagery beneath the ice, and we have to pull experiments that are ongoing in the lake right now. ... All ok here right now and for the moment our winds are calm; but that will probably change over the the next few hours - maybe we will get lucky and we will miss most of the bad weather forecast for Novo. I am hoping the new met station is up and running but there may be one or two other things we need to do to get it online; once I get confirmation I will let you know and will send you a web link so you can see a daily download of the data. Hopefull it will work. Will check in with you tomorrow with an update."

We just sent a message to try to talk to aliens on another world, New Scientist

"Ninety-eight percent of astronomers and SETI researchers, including myself, think that METI is potentially dangerous, and not a good idea," says Dan Werthimer, a SETI researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's like shouting in a forest before you know if there are tigers, lions, and bears or other dangerous animals there."

Scientists Have Sent Messages to Advanced Civilizations, Newsweek

"[Douglas Vakoch, president of METI] Everyone engaged in SETI is already endorsing transmissions to extraterrestrials through their actions. If we detect a signal from aliens through a SETI program, there's no way to prevent a cacophony of responses from Earth. And these wouldn't be responses to a possibly habitable exoplanet, but to a star system where we know there is intelligent life. There's no way to enforce the SETI protocols that call for consultation before replying. Once the news gets out that we've detected extraterrestrials, anyone with a transmitter can say whatever they want."

Declaration of Principles Concerning the Conduct of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (2010 protocol), SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics

"8. Response to signals: In the case of the confirmed detection of a signal, signatories to this declaration will not respond without first seeking guidance and consent of a broadly representative international body, such as the United Nations."

Keith's note: This is all rather silly. SETI scientists like Werthimer would prefer not to transmit anything to anyone. But they want people to give them millions of dollars to listen for transmissions from other intelligent species. If alien intelligences are similar to us i.e. afraid of other letting civilizations know where they are then they are not going to be transmitting either. If that is true then Werthimer et al are wasting a lot of money listening for signals that are not going to be there - if you follow their self-canceling logic, that is.

Also, Wetheimer claims his statements are shared by "Ninety-eight percent of astronomers and SETI researchers". Really - he has polled all astronomers and SETI researchers - everywhere? Reference, please. We have been announcing our presence to alien civilizations in one form or another for nearly a century via radio. The bulk of these transmissions have not been done by governments. As such the 2010 statement by IAA (which is also utterly non-binding) would have little effect on stoping anyone with money and a big dish from saying "hello".

On the other hand, just because someone can do something does not mean that they should. This topic needs a broader airing - not just food fights in the news between dueling METI/SETI sandboxes. Both the SETI and METI tribes are myopic, and somewhat inbred, by definition. Their pronouncements from on high should not be the final say on the way that humanity deals with this topic. There are 6 billion other humans who should have a say.

Statement on NSF Record of Decision on Arecibo Observatory, NSF

"On Nov. 15, 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) signed its Record of Decision for the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This important step concludes the agency's decision-making process with respect to the general path forward for facility operations in a budget-constrained environment and provides the basis for a future decision regarding a new collaborator."

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Antarctic Status Report 4 November 2017 (maps, links, pictures)

"Dale Andersen sent this message via Garmin inRreach on 4 November 2017 at 8:44 am EDT from: Lat -70.774999 Lon 11.837554: "We are almost ready for the traverse to Lake Untersee but today and tomorrow we will have high winds and blowing snow with white-out conditions so we will remain here in the warmth and safety of the huts located at Novolazarevskaya. ..."

Astrobiologist Dale Andersen Antarctic Status Report 5 November 2017: Buran!

- NASA is hiring a planetary protection office to save Earth from aliens, Newsweek
- NASA wants to pay someone astronomical sums to do something that is out of this world, The Blaze
- NASA Hiring 'Planetary Protection Officer' to Prevent Alien Invasion, NBC 6
- You Can Now Apply For a 6-Figure NASA Job Defending Earth From Alien Contamination, Money Magazine
- Leave your tin-foil hat at home: NASA needs a Planetary Protection Officer, WTOP

- Planetary Protection Officer (job description), USAJobs

"This position is assigned to Office of Safety and Mission Assurance for Planetary Protection. Planetary protection is concerned with the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration. NASA maintains policies for planetary protection applicable to all space flight missions that may intentionally or unintentionally carry Earth organisms and organic constituents to the planets or other solar system bodies, and any mission employing spacecraft, which are intended to return to Earth and its biosphere with samples from extraterrestrial targets of exploration. This policy is based on federal requirements and international treaties and agreements."

Keith's note: All these goofy clickbait headlines about aliens. So little journalistic or editorial research. This position was created in 1967. It was originally called "Planetary Quarantine Officer" and Larry Hall was the first person to fill the position. In 1986 the position's name was changed to "Planetary Protection Officer". NASA has had someone in this position for half a century. The salary range is standard government scale. Fake news.

The Goals, Rationales, and Definition of Planetary Protection: Interim Report, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

"Avoiding forward and back contamination in missions to Mars can be viewed as addressing contamination that travels from Earth to Mars and back. From its origin in the 1997 SSB study and its implementation in COSPAR and NASA documents, the third rationale has been associated with preventing a "false positive" in a sample returned to Earth from a solar system body. However, molecular biology has advanced considerably in the last 20 years, and the committee needs to investigate more thoroughly whether new methods in molecular biology make false positive and negative results in biohazard assessments conducted on returned samples far less likely."

NASA Releases Kepler Survey Catalog with Hundreds of New Planet Candidates

"NASA's Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new planet candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star's habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet. With the release of this catalog, derived from data publically available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified."

The Tiny Edit That Changed NASA's Future, The Atlantic

"But in this year's bill, Congress added a momentous phrase to the agency's mission: "the search for life's origins, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe." It's a short phrase, but a visionary one, setting the stage for a far-reaching effort, that could have as profound an impact on the 21st century as the Apollo program had on the 20th. NASA's new directive acknowledges that we are tantalizingly close to answering perhaps the most fundamental question of all: Are we alone in the universe?"

National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017

"The Administrator shall enter into an arrangement with the National Academies to develop a science strategy for astrobiology that would outline key scientific questions, identify the most promising research in the field, and indicate the extent to which the mission priorities in existing decadal surveys address the search for life's origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe."

Keith's note: As much as I support the wording in this authorization act, authorization acts contain all kinds of interesting language that is usually ignored or slow-boated by NASA - especially if money is required to comply with the language - money that has not been appropriated. If reports (especially National Academy reports) are called for by the authorization bill, the reports are conducted by the usual suspects, take several years to create, and when they are delivered everyone has forgotten why they were asked for and/or the results have been overtaken by events. This 2017 NASA authorization act references an earlier NASA authorization act from 2010 which called for a National Academy report that was not started until 2012 and reported back to Congress in 2014. No one really pays much attention to the report since it punted on virtually every important task it was given to do.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017

"In accordance with section 204 of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (124 Stat. 2813), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, through its Committee on Human Spaceflight, conducted a review of the goals, core capabilities, and direction of human space flight, and published the findings and recommendations in a 2014 report entitled, ``Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration''."

Yet Another Slow Motion Advisory Committee on Human Space Flight, earlier post (2012)

"Net result: the committee's advice will be out of synch with reality and somewhat overtaken by events having taken a total of 3 years, 7 months to complete. Oh yes: the cost of this study? $3.6 million.. The soonest that a NASA budget could be crafted that took this committee's advice into account would be the FY 2016 budget request. NASA and OMB will interact on the FY 2016 budget during Fall 2014 and it won't be announced until early 2015 - 4 1/2 years after this committee and its advice was requested in the NASA Authorization Act 2010."

Hearing: Advances in the Search for Life

Hearing charter

"The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 established "The search for life's origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe," as one of the national space program's objectives. The hearing will survey recent breakthroughs in a variety of fields that contribute to astrobiology, such as the continued discovery of exoplanets and research efforts to understand life's origin on Earth and in the lab."

Comittee member statements: Rep. Babin, Rep. Johnson, Rep. Bera, Rep. Smith

Hearing witness statements: Thomas Zurbuchen, Adam Burgasser, James Kasting, Seth Shostak

Archived Webcast

Astrobiology Then and Now

Astrobiology Has Arrived: A Personal Recollection, Keith Cowing

"I am currently attending the Astrobiology Science Conference where the world's astrobiologists all meet to showcase their results and share ideas. There was a time, barely 20 years ago, when there were no astrobiologists. I was one of the lucky people to be present as this amazing 21st century discipline came into existence."

Keith's note: This coming week I will be at the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon). As such my posting on NASAWatch will be somewhat limited. But Marc will be keeping an eye on things. I will be tweeting about the meeting from @NASAWatch and @Astrobiology and posting updates at astrobiology.com. AbSciCon Sessions will be streamed live at http://spaceref.com/live/astrobiology.html




Breakthrough Initiatives Summit on Life in the Universe and Space Exploration

"Breakthrough Initiatives today announced its second annual Breakthrough Discuss scientific conference, which will bring together leading astronomers, engineers, astrobiologists and astrophysicists to advance discussion surrounding recent discoveries of potentially habitable planets in nearby star systems. The two days of discussions will focus on newly discovered Earth-like 'exoplanets' in the Alpha Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 planetary systems, and new evidence that these planets could be habitable, as well as their potential as targets for novel methods of space exploration."

Breakthrough Discuss Opens with Lively Sessions Dedicated to the Search for Planets and Life in Our Cosmic Neighborhood, Breakthrough Initiatives

"Peter Michelson emphasized that the last century of scientific investigation has transformed questions about origins from the realm of metaphysics to a place where they can be investigated observationally."

Breakthrough Discuss Conference Closes with Full Day Dedicated to Newly Discovered Exoplanets and SETI, Breakthrough Initiatives

"Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of scientific and technological programs exploring the big questions around life in the Universe, such as, Are we alone? What are the nearest habitable planets? And can we become an interstellar civilization?"

Keith's note: I had a few thoughts about this official Science March T-shirt design.


New Insights into Ocean Worlds Enceladus and Europa

"Two veteran NASA missions are providing new details about icy, ocean-bearing moons of Jupiter and Saturn, further heightening the scientific interest of these and other "ocean worlds" in our solar system and beyond. The findings are presented in papers published Thursday by researchers with NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn and Hubble Space Telescope. In the papers, Cassini scientists announce that a form of chemical energy that life can feed on appears to exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus, and Hubble researchers report additional evidence of plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa."

Keith's note: correction - "Linda" who made the shrimp comment is not from PAO - she is Dr. Linda Spilker the Cassini Project Scientist. NASA gets all upset when newspapers start to make things up about these upcoming announcements - especially when they start speculating on all sorts of alien life forms that might be on the verge of being announced. NASA PAO constantly complains that they have to shoot down all of the loony speculation. Then someone at NASA starts asking about shrimp on Enceladus in an official capacity at a NASA press event.

Hydrothermal Activity in The Seas of Enceladus: Implications For Habitable Zones, Astrobiology.com

First posted on 11 April 2017 at 7:16 pm EDT. "On Thursday NASA will announce evidence that hydrothermal activity on the floor of an ice-covered ocean on Saturn's moon Enceladus is most likely creating methane from carbon dioxide. The process is indicative of possible habitable zones within the ocean of Enceladus. But before we go any further, "habitable" does not mean "inhabited". NASA bases this determination on the amount of hydrogen in plumes emanating from the moon's south pole. The large amount of hydrogen is strongly suggestive of a constant hydrothermal process wherein the ocean under the surface of Enceladus is interacting with rock and organic compounds. The amount of hydrogen present is in disequilibrium i.e. if there was not a process that was constantly generating hydrogen the observed hydrogen levels would likely be lower than what is seen. Something is pumping it out."

NASA News Conference on Oceans Beyond Earth, NASA

"NASA will discuss new results about ocean worlds in our solar system from the agency's Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope during a news briefing 11 a.m. PDT (2 p.m. EDT, 18:00 UTC) on Thursday, April 13. These new discoveries will help inform future ocean world exploration -- including NASA's upcoming Europa Clipper mission planned for launch in the 2020s -- and the broader search for life beyond Earth."

A revolution is brewing: observations of TRAPPIST-1 exoplanetary system fosters a new biomarker, physics.pop-ph

"One of the key questions that has arisen in recent times is the boundaries of the Habitable Zone, classically defined as the range of orbital distances in a stellar system where surface liquid water could be stable (Kasting et al. 1993). It is, however, seldom addressed how this concept might become obsolete in exoplanetary worlds where the priorities for living a good life are different than getting liquid water everywhere and at all times (Kim Kardashian, personal communication). A groundbreaking paper to that respect is the study by Kane and Zelsiz (2014) which demonstrated that the existing concepts about the Hab- itable Zone completely overlooked the risk posed by Zombie attacks."

Read the paper

Temperate Earth-Sized Planets Found in Extraordinarily Rich Planetary System TRAPPIST-1 , ESO

"Astronomers have found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away. Using ground and space telescopes, including ESO's Very Large Telescope, the planets were all detected as they passed in front of their parent star, the ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. According to the paper appearing today in the journal Nature, three of the planets lie in the habitable zone and could harbour oceans of water on their surfaces, increasing the possibility that the star system could play host to life. This system has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water on their surfaces."

Spitzer Telescope Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star, NASA

"NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water. The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water - key to life as we know it - under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone."

USA concerned about China's possible contact with extraterrestrials, Pravda

"John Hertz, former chairman of the board of trustees of the US-based SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) said in an interview with the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, that sending signals to alien civilization was dangerous. The expert added that it would be even more dangerous if China received a response from an extraterrestrial civilization. ... Not that long ago, it was reported that three aircraft in China could not land at an airport in Sichuan because of an unidentified flying object. The airport administration denied landing boarding, fearing for the safety of passengers. The aircraft had to be redirected to other airports."

Keith's note: Too funny. Pravda (which is aligned with the Russian government) cites American fears about SETI signal detection and suggests that they are linked to a UFO that prevented commercial airline activity in Sichuan, China. Pravda mentions John "Hertz" and the SETI Institute. They might be referring to John "Gertz". They seem to be referring to Gertz's BIS paper (not an "interview") "Post-Detection SETI Protocols & METI: The Time Has Come To Regulate Them Both". This paper makes no mention of UFOs, airliners, or Sichuan but does say "Should the Chinese achieve an ET detection separately from Breakthrough Listen, it is unknown whether they would share the news with the rest of mankind or, alternatively, designate it a state secret."

Gertz is worried that China might withhold information about a SETI contact. He goes on to say that "Pursuant to Article IX of the Space Treaty, METI [Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] would arguably be illegal. Consequently, on its face, it would seem that organizations or individuals attempting to conduct METI might be enjoined in a court of law." He adds "However, the immediate release of the coordinates of a transmission begs an unauthorized and premature response. Religious groups might send their parochial messages, while Kim Jong Un might send his." So it is not illegal to listen to E.T. but it is illegal to talk to E.T. - so who enforces this?

The purpose of SETI is to listen for messages from extraterrestrial civilizations - right? If sending of messages is illegal and thus prohibited then wouldn't other intelligent civilizations adopt the same stance? If so why even do SETI in the first place? No one will be transmitting - and there will be nothing to listen to. Besides, its too late. We have sent two interstellar spacecraft out of the solar system with maps of how to find us - and we have been yelling "we're over here" to the universe for a century via radio. Indeed SETI guru Frank Drake deliberately said hello to globular star cluster M13 from Arecibo in 1974. So Gertz et al are a century too late - and if Pravda is to be believed, E.T. has already found us. Beam me up.

WikiLeaks, Blink 182, John Podesta, and UFOs, earlier post

SETI's Echo Chamber

Why Only Americans Are Interested in the Hunt for Alien Life, Seth Shostak, NBC

"Bottom line? Today, SETI is solely an American enterprise. And even then, it's pretty minimal. SETI is not on the back burner ... it's on the pilot light. The total number of researchers can be tallied on your extremities, and there's essentially no government funding. The effort is tiny, but at least there's effort. So what's going on here? If a dozen other countries have the telescopes, the money, and the research horsepower to search for cosmic company, why is this extraordinarily profound quest confined to the U.S.?"

Keith's note: First of all, Project Breakthrough is being funded to the tune of $100 million by Russian businessman Yuri Milner. Milner is renting time to do SETI scans on the largest radio telescope on Earth which is located in China. So this claim about the U.S. being the only country that is interested in SETI is simply untrue. Follow the money. Second, there's Shostak's suggestion that America's special frontier mentality is behind all of this. No mention of the other nations of similar age who confronted - and still confront - real frontiers. A gross oversimplification to say the least. Lastly and most importantly: How can Shostak possibly know what people in every nation on Earth are or are not interested in? He seems to equate writing checks to the SETI Institute and renting telescope time as being the only way to measure "interest" in SETI. Could it be that limited budgets and other priorities that he is unaware of drive these decisions - just as they halted Congressional support for SETI in the U.S.?

Let me suggest that it is Shostak and his clan of SETI enthusiasts who have a problem understanding how to communicate with large portions of humanity about SETI. It may well be that there is a vast amount of public interest in astrobiology and searching for intelligent life - interest that does not show up on the radar screen of Shostak et al because they do not know how - or care - to search for it. Until the SETI community takes the time and creativity to understand humanity's stance on life in the universe with the same methodology that they apply to aliens, this situation is not going to change.

National Astronomical Observatories of China, Breakthrough Initiatives Launch Global Collaboration in Search for Intelligent life in the Universe

"The National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) is joining forces with the Breakthrough Initiatives to launch a coordinated search for evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth Using some of the world's most powerful telescopes. NAOC's brand-new FAST telescope - the world's largest filled-aperture radio receiver - will join the Breakthrough Listen program at Green Bank Telescope in the US and the Parkes Observatory in Australia, and together the organization's will exchange observing plans, search methods and data - including the rapid sharing of promising new signals for additional observation and analysis. The two parties are also planning a series of meetings and conferences to refine search strategies, data analyses and results. At a signing ceremony at NAOC headquarters in Beijing, the collaboration was announced via a joint statement by Prof. Jun Yan, Director General of NAOC, and Pete Worden, Chairman of Breakthrough Prize Foundation and Executive Director of Breakthrough Initiatives. They looked forward to "a long and productive scientific collaboration," and invited scientists around the world to join in "one of humanity's greatest quests."

Water Plumes on Europa

Evidence of Water Vapor Plumes on Europa, NASA

"Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have imaged what may be water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. This finding bolsters other Hubble observations suggesting the icy moon erupts with high altitude water vapor plumes. The observation increases the possibility that missions to Europa may be able to sample Europa's ocean without having to drill through miles of ice."

- Monitoring in a continuum with the RATAN-600 astronomical candidate objects SETI, SAO

- Breakthrough Listen Follow-up of a Transient Signal from the RATAN-600

"In this memo, we briefly report on our own follow-up observations, undertaken using the new Breakthrough Listen back-end instrument at the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). This preliminary analysis will be followed up in time with a more formal refereed publication of the initial scientific results from Breakthrough Listen."

Earth-mass Planet Found In The Habitable Zone Of Proxima Centauri, ESO

"Astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri. The long-sought world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days and has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us -- and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the solar system. A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on 25 August 2016."

Army's new recruitment drive: Sign up, maybe fight aliens, Army Times

It's part of an ongoing effort to correct what Ortiz called "misperceptions" about the Army by the general public. "We constantly hear America talk about the Army in a very detrimental way, in that we are low-tech, we are low-skill, and for the most part, because of those first two, we are the institution of last resort," he said, adding that the responses from the public became so familiar that "two years ago, we stopped asking."

Senator: "Then why don't you simply withdraw your testimony and concede...that this journey to the center of the galaxy never took place?"

Dr. Arroway: "Because I can't. I had an experience. I can't prove it. I can't even explain it. But everything I know as a human being, everything I am ... tells me it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision ... of the universe ... that tells us undeniably ... how tiny and insignificant ...and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something ...that is greater than ourselves, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish ... that everyone, if even for one ... moment ... could feel ...that awe and humility and hope. That continues to be my wish."

Center of Theological Inquiry, CTI

"The Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) is pleased to announce that it has been awarded a grant by the NASA Astrobiology Program to convene an interdisciplinary inquiry into the societal implications of the search for life in the universe."

Why Did NASA Issue a $1.1 Million Grant to Study How Alien Life Could Impact Christianity?

"To put that another way, NASA made a million-dollar donation to a religious group so that it could study how the discovery of extraterrestrial life would impact Christianity. Why is NASA funding any sort of dialogue about the intersection of science and religion?"

NASA, Jesus & Templeton?, Huffington Post

"The attempt by Templeton to insinuate its divine motive into science is aided by the failure of science to understand the origin and evolution of life. Templeton funds many projects in these two areas seemingly not to find answers but to factor in religion."

'Contact' Is The Forgotten '90s Sci-Fi Film You Need To Revisit, Bustle

"The film explores ethical, moral, and scientific dilemmas that come from humanity interacting with other species in thought-provoking ways, and the fact that it features an intelligent, emotional, complex woman at its center is the cherry on top."

Keith's note: This week, from 17-19 May, the annual Humans to Mars Summit will be underway in Washington, DC. Much of the event will be webcast live. We'll be live tweeting the event at @NASAWatch.

The Humans to 2016 Mars Report Released at Humans to Mars Summit

"As highlighted in this year's report, there have been significant developments since the premiere issue was released. Mars has been in the news regularly, and the United States has embraced Mars as the goal for human space flight more than ever before. For example, in October 2015 NASA began the process of assessing potential candidate human landing sites on Mars for the first time."

For more information visit h2m.exploremars.org.

Attempt no landing there? Yeah right we're going to Europa, Ars Technica

"NASA is very publicly planning a mission to Europa in the 2020s, one that will soar over the intriguing moon dozens of times. Yet the reality is more thrilling. Quietly, the same engineers who masterminded the daring Curiosity landing on Mars in 2012 have been plotting how best to drop a lander onto the nightmare glacier. In early November, they presented their preliminary findings for a 230-kg lander to the one person in the world who can, and who dearly wants to, make that happen. "I told them to do whatever it takes," said Representative John Culberson after meeting with the NASA scientists. "All of humanity is going to want to know what's under the ice."

A Lander for NASA's Europa Mission, Planetary Society

"There's been almost no official information on the lander. What we know comes from a long article from Ars Technica's Eric Berger on the then possible addition of a lander and a dedicated plume flyby sub-satellite."

Keith's note: This is one of the more odd posts by the Planetary Society. My talented colleague Eric Berger committed some actual journalism and published a story on this. Then the Planetary Society (or one of their preferred bloggers, Van Kane) did a story - on Eric's story - with some passive insinuations about its veracity such as "Berger is a long time space reporter and has developed a good relationship with House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX)." And then it goes on to use variations on "Berger says" a dozen times - as if Eric is the source of everything about this concept. No, he's a reporter - a rather industrious one at that. Kane then goes on to cast doubt on the notion that anything could - or should be landed on Europa. Oddly, the author never (apparently) spoke to Rep. Culberson. Or to Eric Berger. Or to NASA. The Planetary Society was all over the notion of sending a mission to Europa when it was fanning the flames over the recently approved budget. Now, well, not so much, it would seem. Its becoming difficult to figure out what Planetary Society is against - or what it was for - before it was against. There's no disclaimer on the article other than to note where it first appeared. How odd. A member of Congress totally 'gets' astrobiology and exploration - and yet this second guessing post is the best that Planetary Society can put forth?

Congress: NASA must not only go to Europa, it must land, Ars Technica

"NASA's administrator, Charles Bolden, has accepted the Europa mission only grudgingly. When NASA didn't ask for Europa funding in its 2013 or 2014 budgets, Culberson gave it a total of more than $120 million. Finally, in its fiscal year 2015 budget request, NASA acquiesced and created a Europa program. The president's budget called for $15 million to begin preliminary studies. Culberson appropriated $100 million. For fiscal year 2016, NASA requested $30 million. It got nearly six times that. Now that NASA has accepted an orbital mission to Europa, the biggest point of contention has been a lander. During a November interview with Ars, Bolden explained why he didn't want to tackle such an ambitious mission. "My scientific community, the people who do mission planning, say we need to go and do a little research with the first mission to Europa to determine whether that's a place we want to send a lander," Bolden said. "That's the point of our big disagreement with Congressman Culberson right now. He wants a multibillion dollar Europa mission that has a lander on the first flight and everything. Our belief is that that is imprudent from a scientific perspective."

Astrobiology Hearing Today

Hearing charter

"This hearing will review the scientific methods employed to search for life, examine recent scientific discoveries in the field of astrobiology (the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe), and assess the prospects of finding life beyond Earth over the next decade."

- Archived webcast
- Hearing information
- Prepared Statements by: Ellen Stofan, Jonathan Lunine, Jacob Bean, Andrew Siemion
- Science, Space, and Technology Committee Hearing Examines NASA's Astrobiology Portfolio
- House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Assesses Progress in the Search for Life beyond Earth

Search for Alien Life Ignites Battle over Giant Telescope, Scientific American

"The foundation was and still is interested in partnering with Arecibo, Scientific American has learned. But according to Arecibo Director Robert Kerr, that partnership is currently being prevented due to a poison pill inserted by the observatory's owner, the National Science Foundation (NSF). The situation is a startling example of a cash-strapped federal agency seeking to offload an expensive, world-class facility to the private sectorat the potential cost of compromising its ability to perform world-class scientific research. ... The NSF approved Green Bank's Breakthrough Listen partnership, allowing Milner to purchase 15 percent of the telescope's observing time for SETI, although NSF officials say even with that cash infusion Green Bank's continued operations remain in jeopardy."

Smith Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Ensure NSF Research Advances 'National Interest', House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

"All government employees and their agency heads need to remember they are accountable to the American taxpayer who pays their salaries and funds their projects. It is not the government's money; it's the people's money. The Scientific Research in the National Interest Act is a step toward more accountability."

Looking for extraterrestrials - The optimistic gamble, Economist

"Mr Milner reckons there are three reasons why the moment is right to go big on SETI. One is that Kepler, a space telescope run by NASA, has shown that there are a lot of potentially habitable planets out there. Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who will run Breakthrough Listen, says Kepler-based studies suggest that perhaps one star in ten has planets that are "Earth-sized and lukewarm" not obviously too massive, too hot or too cold for vaguely Earthlike life. The second reason is the relentless rise of signal-processing power. The ten-billion-channel system Dr Marcy is working on would have been impossible just a few years ago. That all of the resulting data can easily be made available to other scientists and enthusiastic amateurs is another sign of progress. Some 3m people already participate in the SETI@Home project, which lets people use spare computing time to sift through previous SETI data. Since the project has now linked up with Breakthrough Listen, more will surely join it. Free access to data will almost certainly generate false alarms, but Dr Marcy accepts that as part of the price of doing business. A third motive for the push is that an unprecedented amount of time is now available on first-rate radio telescopes. Government-funded research has seen its purse-strings drawn tight recently, and instruments like that at Green Bank need new sources of income."

Earth-like Tatooines From Star Wars May Be Common

"Luke Skywalker's home in "Star Wars" is the desert planet Tatooine, with twin sunsets because it orbits two stars. So far, only uninhabitable gas-giant planets have been identified circling such binary stars, and many researchers believe rocky planets cannot form there. Now, mathematical simulations show that Earth-like, solid planets such as Tatooine likely exist and may be widespread."

Curiosity Finds Active, Ancient Organic Chemistry on Mars

"NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory's drill. "This temporary increase in methane -- sharply up and then back down -- tells us there must be some relatively localized source," said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. "There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock."

NASA Still Won't Look For Existing Life on Mars (Update)

Keith's 31 July 2014 update: I obviously expected Jim Green to answer in the same cautious way that NASA has always answered this question - one I have asked again and again for the nearly 20 years. Instead, Green launched into a detailed description of all the things that the Mars 2020 rover could detect that have a connection with life. Much of what he said clearly referred to extant / existing life. Now THAT is cool. To clarify things I sent the following request to NASA PAO "Can the Mars 2020 rover detect extant/existing life on Mars? Will NASA be looking for extant/existing life on Mars?" Let's see how they respond.

Keith's 16 Dec 2014 update: NASA SMD's Jim Green and NASA SMD PAO Dwayne Brown still refuse to respond to my original inquiry from July 2014.

Ah, Those Acronyms

NASA awards CU-Boulder-led team $7 million to study origins, evolution of life in universe

"NASA awarded seven grants totaling almost $50 million to seven winning research teams that will explore the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. The other six victorious teams are ... the Search for Extraterrestrial Existence, or SETI, in Mountain View, Calif. ..."

Keith's note: Well, they fixed it. The original version is posted here. They did not issue a revision to the media however.

Earth's Water Is Much Older Than the Sun, Carnegie Institution for Science

"Our findings show that a significant fraction of our solar system's water, the most-fundamental ingredient to fostering life, is older than the Sun, which indicates that abundant, organic-rich interstellar ices should probably be found in all young planetary systems," Alexander said."

Water On Earth Is Older Than Our Sun, University of Exeter

"A pioneering new study has shown that water found on Earth predates the formation of the Sun -- raising hopes that life could exist on exoplanets, the planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. The ground-breaking research set out to discover the origin of the water that was deposited on the Earth as it formed."

Keith's note: This is a rather profound finding - the sort of thing that would make Carl Sagan excoted - something that you'd think a lot of people would like to know about. The Carnegie Institution for Science notes: "This research was supported by the NSF, the Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship, NASA Astrobiology, NASA Cosmochemistry and NASA.". Yet no mention is made at @AstrobiologyNAI, astrobiology.nasa.gov, science.nasa.gov, or at NASA.gov. The word "inept" once again comes to mind with regard to NASA's Astrobiology program.

NASA Still Won't Look For Existing Life on Mars (update), earlier post

Keith's 31 July note: I obviously expected Jim Green to answer in the same cautious way that NASA has always answered this question - one I have asked again and again for the nearly 20 years. Instead, Green launched into a detailed description of all the things that the Mars 2020 rover could detect that have a connection with life. Much of what he said clearly referred to extant / existing life. Now THAT is cool. To clarify things I sent the following request to NASA PAO "Can the Mars 2020 rover detect extant/existing life on Mars?  Will NASA be looking for extant/existing life on Mars?" Let's see how they respond.

Keith's 3 Sep update: Well it has been more than a month. Dwayne Brown from NASA SMD PAO specifically asked media reps who were on the telecon to send him any questions via email they might have and that he'd get an answer back to them. I haven't heard a thing from him since I sent him the email he requested (wth cc: to SMD management). So much for his promises. Either NASA cannot/will not answer this rather simple question or it is not on Dwayne's priority list right now. I sent additional requests via email to NASA SMD and PAO last week. Still no response.

NASA Still Won't Look For Existing Life on Mars (update), earlier post

Keith's 31 July note: I obviously expected Jim Green to answer in the same cautious way that NASA has always answered this question - one I have asked again and again for the nearly 20 years. Instead, Green launched into a detailed description of all the things that the Mars 2020 rover could detect that have a connection with life. Much of what he said clearly referred to extant / existing life. Now THAT is cool. To clarify things I sent the following request to NASA PAO "Can the Mars 2020 rover detect extant/existing life on Mars?  Will NASA be looking for extant/existing life on Mars?" Let's see how they respond.

Keith's 25 Aug update: Well it has been nearly a month. Dwayne Brown from NASA SMD PAO specifically asked media reps who were on the telecon to send him any questions via email they might have and that he'd get an answer back to them. I haven't heard a thing from him since I sent him the email he requested (wth cc: to SMD management). Either NASA cannot/will not answer this rather simple question or it is not on Dwayne's priority list right now.

Keith's 27 Aug update: I have sent additional requests via email to NASA SMD and PAO. No response.

NASA Announces Mars 2020 Rover Payload

"The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed almost two years ago, and currently is operating on Mars. The new rover will carry more sophisticated, upgraded hardware and new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover's landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life."

NASA Hosts 3 p.m. EDT Teleconference with Mars 2020 Principal Investigators

Keith's note: (sigh) NASA still does not have the imagination or inclination to search for signs of extant life on Mars. All they seem to be willing to do is see if it used to be there. At the rate that they are going it will be 20 years before they get up the nerve to try and answer the question.

Keith's update: I asked the following question at the Mars 2020 Rover press event today. "Your press release says "determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life." Why isn't NASA directly searching for signs of EXISTING LIFE on Mars? And I will ask my follow-up since the answer to this question is always "we don't know how to look for life on Mars - yet". - How are you going about the task of learing how to look for existing life on Mars, when will you have this capability and why is it that NASA was eager to search for existing life on Mars 40 years ago but is unwilling or unable to do so now?"

I obviously expected Jim Green to answer in the same cautious way that NASA has always answered this question - one I have asked again and again for the nearly 20 years. Instead, Green launched into a detailed description of all the things that the Mars 2020 rover could detect that have a connection with life. Much of what he said clearly referred to extant / existing life. Now THAT is cool. To clarify things I sent the following request to NASA PAO "Can the Mars 2020 rover detect extant/existing life on Mars?  Will NASA be looking for extant/existing life on Mars?" Let's see how they respond.

Leading Space Experts to Discuss the Search for Life Beyond Earth

"NASA Television will air a panel discussion of leading science and engineering experts on Monday, July 14, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. EDT, who will describe the scientific and technological roadmap that will lead to the discovery of potentially habitable worlds among the stars. The public is invited to attend or view the event, which will take place in the Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters, 300 E Street SW in Washington."

Keith's note: No mention is made of this highly visible agency-wide astrobiology event at NASA's Astrobiology Institute website nor on its Twitter account. Once again the crack social media staff at NAI are sound asleep.

- Ignoring "Cosmos": Incompetence at NASA's Astrobiology Institute, earlier post
- Why Is NASA's Astrobiology Program STILL Ignoring "Cosmos"?, earlier post

Keith's update: NAI added an article after the fact but it still does not show up on their main page. It is also missing from their "spotlight" on events. So how does one find it? They also tweeted something - but only "10 minutes" before the event. What enthusiasm.

Meanwhile there is very little "astrobiology" being mentioned in this event titled titled "The Search for Life in the Universe". Its all about Webb Space Telescope. And Webb was not designed to "search for life".

Keith's note: NASA's Astrobiology Institute has over 879,000 followers on its Twitter account @AstrobiologyNAI. Not once in the months that "Cosmos" has been on air has it ever made mention of the show - despite the fac that it amounted to a free multi-week advertisement for Astrobiology. If you go to the offocial NASA NAI website you will see that it totally ignored Cosmos too. Yet @NASA and other Twitter and social media accounts openly featured links of direct relevance to the show. Even the President chimed in on the opening episode.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute has made a colossal mistake by not taking advantage of this teaching moment for millions on national television - one wherein all of the things that NASA seeks to study under the banner of "astrobiology" have been thoroughly explained in terms almost anyone can grasp. Indeed, this amounts to utter incompetence on the part of the entire leadership and staff at the NASA Astrobiology Institute - and those at NASA Headquarters who manage Astrobiology as a whole. They simply do not care if they are doing their job and explaining their research to the rest of us who pay the bills.

Why Is NASA's Astrobiology Program STILL Ignoring "Cosmos"?, earier post

NASA is getting ready to communicate with aliens (Update 2), Sploid

"We can say little, if anything, about what these patterns [above] signify, why they were cut into rocks, or who created them. For all intents and purposes, they might have been made by aliens." When a new NASA book on alien communications has a paragraph like that, you better pay attention. Update 2: NASA pulled the book and press release from their site. Now the book is available here, as pointed out by a commenter."

Keith's note: Someone found a book "Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication" online at NASA.gov - one that NASA paid for, published, and posted. At one point it off handedly talks about aliens leaving messages on rock. So NASA pulls it offline. Now, people reading the articles that refer to the book get a dead link [update: NASA put the book back online so the link works again]. Well, nothing ever really disappears on the Internet. You can download the book here. Duh.

Keith's update: Classic NASA explanation below. NASA should post it on NASA.gov - at the links that news articles have been linking to so that all the people coming to visit the broken link see the real reason. When NASA just pulls things offline with no explanation it simply fuels these sort of stories.  Without the original document online no one can see the context that NASA wants you to refer to. So they go with what NASA has left there - a big gapping hole.

Michael Meyer Declines NAI Interim Director Position

"Due to unexpected personal conflicts, Dr. Michael Meyer has declined the position of NAI's Interim Director. Dr. Meyer explains, "Unfortunately, the requirements levied to resolve a conflict-of-interest were unacceptable."

Michael Meyer Selected as Interim Director of NASA Astrobiology Institute, earlier post

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


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