NAI

  1. Exoplanet Education Guide


    Artist's conception of an exoplanet. Art by Karen Teramura. Artist's conception of an exoplanet. Art by Karen Teramura.

    The discovery and characterization of exoplanets is one of the most exciting and fast-changing areas in modern astronomical research. As a result, Astronomy 101 instructors have had trouble keeping up with the flow of new techniques, instruments and discoveries. To help, NASA missions, educational projects around the country, and scientists themselves have produced a wide range of materials that astronomy instructors (and their students) can use to learn about the latest developments. This annotated guide is designed to highlight useful materials on the web and in print. It was produced ...

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  1. Super-Habitable World May Exist Near Earth


    This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

    Earth is the only known example of an inhabited planet in the Universe, so the search for alien life has focused on Earth-like worlds. But what if there are alien worlds that are even more habitable than Earth-like planets?

    A recent paper in the journal Astrobiology examines the potential for so-called “superhabitable” worlds. One such planet might even exist around the stellar system closest to Earth: Alpha Centauri B.

    The ...

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  1. Oxygen and the Earliest Animals


    Red volcano sponge (Acarnus erithacus).  Image Credit: SIMoN/MBNMS Red volcano sponge (Acarnus erithacus). Image Credit: SIMoN/MBNMS

    A new study published recently in PNAS explores the relationship between the origin of animals and the oxygen content of the atmosphere. A rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere and oceans is one of the most popular explanations for the relatively late and abrupt appearance of animal life on Earth.

    The authors challenge the widely held view that low levels of atmospheric oxygen delayed the origin of animals. Their study suggests that the last common ancestor of animals could have thrived in oxygen levels significantly lower than those we ...

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  1. Clues to Atmospheric Evolution in Earth’s Earliest Sediments


    Earth’s thin atmosphere is all that stands between life on Earth and the cold, dark void of space. Credit: NASA Earth’s thin atmosphere is all that stands between life on Earth and the cold, dark void of space. Credit: NASA

    The next Early Career Seminar will be presented on April 14 by Mark Claire of the University of East Anglia. Claire will present research undertaken as a member of the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP). His work focuses on the atmospheric composition of the early Earth, and identifying constraints beyond the absence of oxygen.

    Claire’s talk is part of a series of seminars where NASA Astrobiology NPP Fellows who have completed their fellowships present their results. Please join us ...

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  1. Life’s Origins in a Prebiotic Fuel Cell


    A simulated hydrothermal chimney wall , made of iron sulfide precipitates, formed in a fuel cell apparatus (JPL). Electron microscopy shows porosity – where ions flow across the membrane – and crystal A simulated hydrothermal chimney wall , made of iron sulfide precipitates, formed in a fuel cell apparatus (JPL). Electron microscopy shows porosity – where ions flow across the membrane – and crystal formation, which act as electrodes in this “geochemical fuel cell”. Credit: Barge et al. 2014

    Astrobiologists supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) have demonstrated a new way to study the origin of life: fuel cells.

    On Earth, hydrothermal vents on the seafloor act as “geochemical fuel cells.” Living cells also generate energy through processes that are similar to fuel cells. To this end, the team used a lab-grown hydrothermal chimney ...

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  1. Extrem-O-Philes in the Classroom!


    Two cards from the activity. Credit: ASU Two cards from the activity. Credit: ASU

    This hands-on/minds-on lesson can engage learners in a variety of settings, showing them how scientists use Earth-based bacteria to investigate the potential for lilfe on Mars.

    Working in teams, students gain knowledge about the various types of extremophiles found on Earth and use that information to correlate to Mars’ environmental conditions, both past and present. Students will then determine the most likely and interesting landing site candidates for future Mars exploration, specific to searching for potential extremophiles.

    Source: [Arizona State University]

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  1. Alien Moons Baked Dry


    An Earthlike moon orbiting a gas giant host planet. Credit: NASA An Earthlike moon orbiting a gas giant host planet. Credit: NASA

    According to a new study, heat radiating from gas giant planets could pose a problem for otherwise habitable exomoons in distant solar systems.

    Over 1000 extrasolar planets have now been identified, but most are gas giants and not rocky planets like Earth. Astrobiologists have wondered if a gas giant orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star could host rocky moons that are suitable for life as we know it. The new study, which includes work from the NASA Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, examines ...

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  1. Big Picture Science Radio Show


    Join Seth Shostak and his guests over the airwaves for one hour every Friday (or anytime via podcast) and you’ll be glad you did! The Big Picture Science radio show, produced by the SETI Institute, takes listeners on a journey with modern science research through lively and intelligent storytelling. A special astrobiology collection is available.

    What came before the Big Bang? How does memory work? Will our descendants be human or machine? What’s the origin of humor? We ponder these questions daily … and expound on them weekly.

    Big Picture Science takes on big questions by interviewing leading researchers ...

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  1. Charting the Chemical Universe of Amino Acid Structure


    Amino acids are fundamental to life as the building blocks with which cells construct proteins according to genetic instructions. However, the 20 amino acids of the standard genetic code represent a tiny fraction of the number of amino acid chemical structures that could plausibly play such a role, both from the perspective of natural processes by which life emerged and evolved, and from the perspective of human-engineered genetically coded proteins.

    Until now, efforts to describe the structures comprising this broader set, or even estimate their number, have been hampered by the complex properties of organic molecules. In a new study ...

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  1. The Formation of Complex Organic Molecules in Star-Forming Regions


    Eric Herbst. Credit: University of Virginia Eric Herbst. Credit: University of Virginia

    On March 10, Eric Herbst of the University of Virginia will present the next Astrobiology Director’s Seminar: The Formation of Complex Organic Molecules in Star-Forming Regions.

    Please join us at 11 am PDT. Connection details are available here.

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  1. New Technique to Date Ancient Zircons


    Jack Hills Zircon

    New light has been shed on our understanding of Earth’s early crust thanks to a new study in Nature Geoscience by NAI-funded researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

    During the Hadean eon, between Earth’s formation and 4 billion years ago, the Earth differentiated into a core, mantle and crust. The planet was also resurfaced by bombardment of planetesimals and asteroids, as well as some form of plate tectonics. As a result, few rocks of Hadean age remain. Every scrap of material older than 4 billion years is therefore of great interest.

    The oldest preserved crust was previously thought ...

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  1. Clues to the Early Solar System in Carbon Fractionation


    An artist's impression of a planet-forming disk. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC) An artist's impression of a planet-forming disk. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

    A team of astrobiologists supported by the NAI has shed new light on the mechanisms that fractionate carbon isotopes in planetary bodies. Their work shows that significant fractionation of carbon isotopes in nature may be the result of diffusion in iron-nickel metal, which is found inside planets and meteorites.

    Carbon is all around us. Life on Earth is carbon based, but the element is also abundant in the composition of planets and meteorites. By studying how different isotopes of carbon are formed, astrobiologists are able to ...

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  1. Astrobiology Math


    Interested in using astrobiology to teach math? Already teaching astrobiology and want to bring in some math problem sets? This resource is for you! The Astrobiology Math booklet was developed by Dr. Sten Odenwald at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as part of the Space Math at NASA project.

    The booklet contains 75 problems, introducing many topics in astrobiology. It covers concepts in evolution, the detection of extra-solar planets, habitability, Drake’s Equation, and the properties of planets such as temperature and distance from their star.

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  1. NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds


    The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This an The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on. Credit: NASA

    On Wednesday, NASA’s Kepler missions announced that 715 new planets have been verified in orbit around 305 stars. The discovery includes multiple planet systems similar to the Solar System, and marks a significant increase in the number of small-sized planets known to orbit distant stars.

    Four of the planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit within ...

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  1. Microbes, How Low Can You Go?


    Tullis Onstott of Princeton University opens a borehole in a section of rock wall in a South African mine. Image credit: Lisa M. Pratt / The Trustees of Indiana University / NASA / National Science Fo Tullis Onstott of Princeton University opens a borehole in a section of rock wall in a South African mine. Image credit: Lisa M. Pratt / The Trustees of Indiana University / NASA / National Science Foundation

    It seems like anywhere you look on Earth, microorganisms are there – even kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface where sunlight never reaches. Scientists are just beginning to understand Earth’s deep subsurface biosphere, but a new study supported by the NAI might help determine just how far down microbes can go on our planet. The results could also shed light on the potential for life’s origins ...

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