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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

Global Isotopic Measurements Indicate that Early Mars Had a Large Ocean (03.05.2015)

GCA scientists (Villanueva, Mumma & Novak), together with international Co-I’s, made global HDO/H2O measurements of Mars using high-resolution spectrometers at three of the largest ground-based telescopes (VLT, Keck, & IRTF). The strong isotopic anomalies and the D/H enrichment (by a factor of about 7 relative to the Earth’s ocean) indicated that Mars had a significant water loss in its history. Certain basins and orographic depressions show higher enrichment in D/H, whereas high-altitude regions show much lower values. Early Mars (4.5 billion years ago) might have had a global equivalent water layer at least 137 meters deep.

Press Release by ESO: Mars: The Planet that Lost an Ocean's Worth of Water

Published Paper in Science, 10 April 2015: Vol. 348 No. 6231 pp.218-221

Mars Ocean

Skewed Distribution of Organic Molecules in Titan's Upper Atmosphere (10.22.2014)

GCA scientists (M. Cordiner, S. Charnley, S. Milam, M. Mumma, G. Villanueva, L. Paganini) together with a team of international partners obtained spectrally and spatially-resolved maps of HNC and HC3N emission from Titan’s atmosphere using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) on 2013 November 17. The images showed that the concentration of these trace gases are curiously shifted off the poles at high altitudes. At lower altitudes, their distributions are aligned with the poles, which are consistent with observations by the Cassini spacecraft. These kinds of east-to-west variations have never been seen before. This is potentially a ground-breaking discovery that would add intrigue to the complex chemical processes operating in Titan's atmosphere. The ALMA observations were taken as part of the ongoing comet observation campaign that included comets Lemmon, ISON, and Siding Spring, where Titan was used as a calibration object.

Published Article in Astrophysical Journal Letters


Goddard Center for Astrobiology Selected as a Science Team in the NAI (10.06.2014)

The Goddard Center for Astrobiology (GCA) has been awarded a new five-year grant together with six other research teams. GCA has been led by Dr. Michael Mumma since 2003. The new team’s work is focused on the question “did delivery of organic compounds and water to the early Earth by comets and asteroids enable the emergence and evolution of life?” The results of this research will inform the search for habitable environments in our solar system and habitable planets around other stars. The seven new teams will join six other continuing science teams to become members of the virtual NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Each interdisciplinary team will bring unique capabilities and expertise to NASA’s Astrobiology Program.

ALMA Observations of Comets Reveal Chemical Factory at Work (08.11.2014)

An international consortium led by M.A. Cordiner of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology made the very first observations of comets with the Atacama Large Millimeter and sub-millimeter Array (ALMA), located on the altoplano (Atacama Desert) in Chile. The team mapped emission from continuum from mm-sized rocks and from four gases (H2CO, HNC, HCN, and CH3OH) in comets Lemmon and ISON. The 3D maps provided definitive evidence that HNC and H2CO were released in the coma instead of directly from the nucleus, resolving a long-standing issue concerning the origin of these species in comets.

Press release by NRAO

Published Article in Astrophysical Journal Letters

Comet-Lemmon Inner coma of Comet Lemmon in 3D

Would Glycine Survive in the Radiation Environment on Mars? (05.15.2014)

The amino acid glycine is one of many molecules essential to life. To determine how long glycine could survive in conditions of high radiation and low temperature in the surface layers of Mars, GCA scientists Reggie Hudson and Perry Gerakines at the GSFC Cosmic Ice Laboratory Cosmic Ice Laboratory carried out studies of radiation-driven destruction of glycine embedded in amorphous H2O ice. They found that glycine trapped by water ice at a low concentration (0.3 %) could persist from the era when Mars was likely to be habitable only in the deep subsurface (depth > 2 meters). If glycine is present in the rocks on Mars, future missions will have to drill to several meters to find this organic tracer of life.

Published Article in Astrobiology magazine


Vitamin B3 Might Have Been Delivered to Early Earth by Meteorites (04.17.2014)

Postdoctoral Fellow Karen Smith working with GCA scientists have detected vitamin B3 (also called nicotinic acid or niacin) in eight carbon-rich meteorites.  Vitamin B3 is a precursor to NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), a coenzyme used in cellular metabolism in all of life.   They also detected for the first time pyridine dicarboxylic acids in these meteorites.  To examine the interstellar ice chemistry that may have led to the formation of these acids, GCA scientists in the Cosmic Ice Laboratory irradiated pyridine with protons in carbon dioxide-rich ices and were able to synthesize a comparable suite of pyridine mono- and dicarboxylic acids.  This indicates that meteorites may have been a source of molecules for the emergence of more complex coenzymes on the early Earth.

Published Article in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta


Wobbling Could Make Some Planets Habitable (04.15.2014)

S.  Domagal-Goldman (GSFC) and co-investigators used computer simulations to study Earth-like planets at the edge of the 'habitable zone' of their parent stars.  They examined the effect of variable tilts on the planet’s climate and its ability to sustain life.  The wobbling is caused by gravitational perturbations from other nearby large planets and occurs in time scale relatively short compared to geological times.  They found such wobbling could moderate a planet’s climate and enabled it to maintain liquid water on its surface. This would extend the outer edge of the habitable zone and increase the number of planets that are potentially habitable.

Published Paper in Astrobiology Magazine

Tilted Orbits
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



> Previous News Releases: 2012 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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