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Astrobiology Fact

Methane Viewer

Spotlight on GCA Video

Congratulations to Dr. Michael Mumma who receives the 2010 NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award:
"In recognition of the first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars, revealing an active and dynamic planet and a
possible abode for life beyond Earth."


What's New
Nearby Star's Icy Debris Suggests 'Shepherd' Planet (03.06.2014)

Yet another fascinating discovery by NAI scientists. Aki Roberge of the Goddard Team was involved in this ALMA discovery of blobs of CO gas orbiting the star Beta Pictoris at Kuiper belt distances (perhaps shepherded by an unseen planet) .  The gas should be quickly destroyed by interstellar UV unless it is being replaced - the team suggests a cloud of colliding comets may be responsible.

Colliding Comets Hint at Unseen Exoplant

Search for Life's Ingredients in Minute Samples of Extraterrestrial Materials (02.03.2014)

Scientists in Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have developed a new technique to search for amino acids using only a 360-microgram (one-millionth of a gram) sample of the Murchison meteorite. This sample siz.e is 1,000 times smaller than the typical sample size used. The new analysis that used nanoliquid chromatography coupled to nanoelectrospray ionization high resolution mass spectrometry produced the same results as previous analyses using much larger samples. This opens up the possibility for investigating other minute samples of extraterrestrial materials (e.g., micrometeorites, interplanetary dust particles, and cometary particles, and samples returned from future planetary missions) for biologically-relevant organic molecules.

Published paper in Journal of Chromatography

Hubble Traces Subtle Signals of Water on Hazy Worlds (12.3.2013)

Two teams led by GCA scientists Avi M. Mandell and Drake Deming have found faint signatures of water in the atmospheres of five distant planets using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The presence of atmospheric water vapor was reported previously for several exoplanets orbiting stars beyond our solar system, but this is the first study to conclusively measure and compare the profiles and intensities of these signatures on multiple worlds. The two teams used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to explore the absorption of light through the atmosphere of each planet in a range of infrared wavelengths where the water signature, if present, would appear. The teams compared the shapes and intensities of the absorption profiles for all five planets, and the consistency of the signatures gave them confidence they saw water.

Article in the Astrophysical Journal

The Astrobiology Walk Revitalizes Goddard Rocket Garden (10.31.2013)

The new Goddard Center for Astrobiology (GCA) exhibit - The Astrobiology Walk - was officially opened on Tuesday, October 29th, with a ribbon cutting ceremony by the Goddard Center Director, Christopher Scolese, and the NASA HQ Astrobiology Program Scientist, Mary Voytek. More than 75 guests attended the event, including HQ and Goddard managers and laboratory chiefs. Images of the opening event can be viewed on the Goddard Flickr Gallery.

Ribbon Cutting of New Astrobiology Exhibit (10.23.2013)

This event has been rescheduled to October 29th, 2013.

The new GCA exhibit - The Astrobiology Walk - describes the search for the origins of life here on Earth, elsewhere in the solar system and throughout the universe. A ribbon-cutting event for NASA officials, special guests and media begins at 2 p.m. EDT on October 29th, 2013 at the Goddard Visitor Center, with scientists who participated in creating the exhibit on hand. The Astrobiology Walk comprises 10 stations arranged in an arc in the Visitor Center's outdoor Rocket Garden. Panels at each station explain scientific principles and describe Goddard's contribution to that science. Each station is also crowned with a three-dimensional tactile iconic object – a visual representation of the science concepts being presented, such as the high-definition topographical globe of Mars and the peanut-shaped nucleus of comet Hartley 2. The exhibit also features stromatolite rocks, formed by blue-green algae, and a banded ironstone formation. These rocks hail from the time of oxygen's first appearance in Earth's atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago.

Exhibit Brochure Download Exhibit Brochure
Organic Chemistry on Cosmic Ice (3.4.2013)

GCA scientists, Reggie Hudson and Perry Gerakines, have been studying the ultracool chemistry of cosmic ice in GSFC's Cosmic Ice Laboratory. Cosmic ice in deep space is amorphous (unstructured), unlike the ice crystals on Earth. It is so widespread in interstellar space that it could be the most common form of water in the Universe. Often particles and organic compounds are trapped in this ice that could provide clues to life in the Universe. The scientists created ices spiked with an amorphous form of an amino acid (either glycine, alanine or phenylalanine) that is found in proteins, then bombarded the samples with a high-energy proton beam. They found that the amino acids were shielded from the destructive effects of high energy radiation by the ice and could survive tens to hundreds of millions of years if buried at least one centimeter deep in comets, icy moons, or planets.

Article in Icarus, Volume 220, Issue 2, Pages 647-659

How Life Turned Left - 07.25.2012

Meteorites provide a record of chemical processes in the early solar system and may have delivered the left-handed protein amino acids common to all terrestrial life. A predominance of left- over right-handed amino acids has been found in some meteorites, but the origin of these excesses remains unclear. Analyses of the Tagish Lake meteorite by GCA scientists (D. Glavin, J. Elsila, A. Burton, M. Callahan, and J. Dworkin) and D.K. Herd (U. of Alberta) showed L-excesses (up to ~60%) in certain proteinogenic amino acids that cannot be attributed to terrestrial contamination. The excesses appear to have formed during aqueous alteration on the asteroid and support the hypothesis that L-amino acid enrichments formed by non-biological processes before the emergence of life.

Journal of Meteoritics and Planetary Science Paper

X-ray Outbursts Provide a Glimpse of Circumstellar Disks around Young Solar-type Stars - 07.03.2012

Because of their high energies and penetrating power, X-rays play a central role in the ionization of the disks surrounding young stars. The ubiquitous and strong X-ray emission in young Solar-type stars influence protoplanetary disk evolution via processes such as ionization, direct induction of chemical reactions, and modification of grain surfaces. GCA scientists K. Hamaguchi and R. Petre together with their Co-investigators in ESA obtained light curves of multiple-year X-ray outbursts of V1647 Ori using Chandra, Suzaku and XMM-Newton space observatories. They concluded that the cyclic X-ray changes represent the appearance and disappearance of hot regions on the star that rotate in and out of view. The hot spots represent the footprints of magnetically driven accretion flows from the disk to the surface of the young star. To reach the high temperatures associated with X-ray emission, matter must be hitting the protostar at a speed of about 4.5 million mph (2,000 km/s). The hot spots could reach temperatures some 13,000 times hotter than anywhere else on the star. This result clearly demonstrates that hard X-ray-emitting plasma can be present in long-lived accretion footprints at the surfaces of protostars, and thereby constrains the geometry of magnetospheric accretion in early protostellar evolutionary stages.

"Lunch and Learn" Panel Discussion on Astrobiology - 5.17.2012

GCA scientists joined Marc Kaufman, Washington Post reporter and the author of the highly acclaimed book "First Contact" in a "Lunch and Learn" panel discussion for GSFC employees to provide an overview of the scientific endeavors in the search for life beyond Earth. The GCA scientists are M. Callahan, D. Glavin, and P. Conrad (Deputy PI) of the SAM Instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory.

GCA Scientists to Develop Miniaturized Instrument for In-situ Organics Detections - 04.14.2012

Goddard scientists (S. Getty, W. Brinckerhoff, M. Callahan, J. Elsila) recently won funding from the Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program to develop a miniature two-step tandem laser time-of-flight mass spectrometer (L2MS). The L2MS instrument can measure complex nonvolatile organic molecules using advanced laser desorption/ionization (LDI) techniques on solid samples such as "intact" meteorites and planetary rock and ice. The advanced LDI protocols were developed for the miniature L2MS prototype under the auspices of GCA, and have been applied to analyses of meteorites such as Murchison. The instrument is targeted for implementation on future missions to outer planetary satellites, such as Titan or Europa, which are each high-priority astrobiology targets.

Both Hot and Cold Chemistry form Amino Acids in Carbonaceous Meteorites - 03.09.2012

Asteroids and their fragments have impacted the Earth for the last 4.5 billion years. Carbonaceous meteorites are known to contain a wealth of indigenous organic molecules, including amino acids, which suggests that these meteorites could have been an important source of prebiotic organic material during the origins of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere. GCA scientists have found amino acids in 13 Antarctica carbonaceous meteorites (CV and CO carbonaceous chondrites and ureilites) that experienced high temperatures in their history. They had previously discovered amino acids in carbon-rich meteorites (CI, CM, and CR carbonaceous chondrites) that experienced much lower temperatures. Their analyses showed that cosmochemical selection mechanisms seem to exist that favors formation of certain classes of amino acids with cold chemistry and other classes with hot chemistry.

Meteoritics and Planetary Science Paper



> Previous News Releases: 2011 2010 2009
  Other Things
Dr. M. Mumma Audio Interview from Science Friday - Mysterious Gas on Mars - 01.16.09
Dr. M. Mumma Audio Interview - Gas Plume on Mars Signals Potential Life - 01.16.09
Interview on Left Handed Acid from Space - Dr. Danny Glavin
Podcast of Dr. Drake Deming's - There is No Place Like Home - 03.03.09
Comet Wild 2 Podcast
Media / Articles
Review Article on Emerging Classification of Comets based on Chemical Composition
GSFC Press Release on Hartlet-2 - A New Breed of Comet?
Animation on the Stardust path through Wild 2 Jets
Dr. Mumma's Keck Lecture on Comets - 2004
Published Paper in Science - Methane on Mars - 2003
Baking the Rover is Not An Option - 11/20/08
Volcanoes May Have Provided Sparks and Chemistry for First Life - 10.16.08
Mars - An Active Planet (1 of 2)
Mars - An Active Planet (2 of 2) - 1.15.09
Dr. Danny Glavin's Article in "Quirks & Quarks" - 3.21.09
Conceptual Animation Demonstrating Spectroscopy to Find Methane on
Mars - 1.15.09
Visualization of Methane Plume Found on Mars During Northern Summer Season - 1.15.09
Methane on Mars - How Geochemical Processes and How Biological Organisms Under Mars Surface May Have Produced Methane - 1.15.09
Press on Astrobio 2010 Santiago

More Media / Articles...

Key Publications
Absolute Measurements of Methane on Mars
Methane and Water
on Mars: Maps of Active Regions and Their Seasonal Variability
Measurement of the
Isotopic Signatures of Water on Mars; Implications for Studying Methane

Measurements with the Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument
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