1. About ASTEP

    Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. In the era of planetary exploration now under way, researchers are investigating whether life exists or has existed beyond Earth. Astrobiology is thus an increasing focus of planetary exploration missions. Astrobiology investigations require the development of biologically relevant, miniaturized instrumentation capable of extensive, autonomous operations on planetary surfaces – first Mars, then other Solar System bodies. To this end, and in collaboration with the other agencies, NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program, an element of the Astrobiology Program in the Planetary Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate, supports investigations that focus on exploring Earth’s extreme environments to learn how best to search for life on other planets.

    ASTEP is a science-driven exploration program conceived to help produce new science and operational/technological capabilities that will enable further planetary exploration. The program aims to lower the risks of planetary exploration through technology development and systems-level field tests that also obtain scientific data and operational experience in Earth’s extreme environments. A unique and central feature of the ASTEP program is the use of terrestrial field campaigns to advance science and technology and NASA’s overall exploration capabilities. The program’s top three priorities are science, technology, and field campaigns.

    ASTEP science investigations entail biological research in terrestrial environments that are analogous to those found on other planets, past or present. ASTEP investigations are expected to improve understanding of the limits and constraints on life in extreme environments. Better understanding of these limits and constraints, or the lack thereof, should help solar system exploration mission planners determine how best to seek, identify, and characterize life that may exist or may have existed on other planets.

    The ASTEP program sponsors the development of technologies that enable remote searches for, and identification of, life in extreme environments, including planetary surfaces and subsurfaces. These technologies include in situ laboratories, sample acquisition and handling techniques, remote sample manipulation, mobile science systems (including planetary rovers), techniques for autonomous operations, and self-contained deployment systems.

    ASTEP field campaigns are designed to demonstrate and validate potential planetary exploration science and technology in extreme environments on Earth. These field campaigns are conducted with complete systems and in a manner approximating operations on an actual planetary mission. By taking this approach, ASTEP campaigns are expected to contribute to better understanding of the performance, capabilities, and efficiencies of tested systems, gaining operational experience along the way. ASTEP field expeditions also provide unique opportunities for communicating with public audiences about the conduct of science and exploration. Consequently expedition leaders are increasingly incorporating public information initiatives such as weblogs, live satellite links with science museums, and “embedded” journalists in their field campaigns.

    2007 ASTEP field expeditions have included:

    The Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX), an autonomous underwater robotic vehicle developed by Stone Aerospace in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center; the University of Texas at Austin, Jackson School of Geosciences University of Texas at Austin, Jackson School of Geosciences; the Colorado School of Mines Environmental Science and Engineering Program, Golden; the University of Arizona, Tucson; and the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas. DEPTHX completed a course of technology demonstrations and scientific investigations during a series of dives in a system of deep sinkholes, or cenotes, in Mexico. The ASTEP program funded the DEPTHX project to explore concepts that might be employed on a future mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is believed to have an ice-covered liquid water ocean. (For more information, see NASA Headquarters press release, May 31, 2007, “NASA robot completes test drive of exploration capabilities.”)

    The Arctic Gakkel Vents Expedition (AGAVE), employing two autonomous underwater robots, called Jaguar and Puma, developed for the ASTEP program to demonstrate autonomous robotic operations in deep-sea vent environments. Jaguar and Puma were developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, were designed to locate hydrothermal vent sites on the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean and search for life there. The AGAVE research team included scientists and engineers from the United States, Norway, Germany, Japan, and Sweden in addition to the United States. This expedition was supported by the National Science Foundation. (For more information, see WHOI’s “Dive and Discover” Web site.)

    The Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE), which involved a multinational team of researchers from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and other U.S. and European institutions. The aim of the AMASE expedition was to collect scientific data and demonstrate planetary exploration technologies in a terrestrial environment analogous to areas of Mars that are of interest to astrobiologists.

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute’s Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) program has developed a special deep-sea version of the ESP for the ASTEP program. The ESP is an underwater robotic microbial sampling system. The deep-sea environmental sample processor (D-ESP) supported by ASTEP is an instrument package designed for autonomously sampling and detecting microbes found in Earth’s deep-sea seep and hydrothermal vent fluids. The aim of this ASTEP project is to demonstrate the sort of technology that might be used to sample the ice-covered liquid-water oceans believed to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa. The ESP collects subsurface water samples and uses an automated molecular probe to identify microorganisms and their gene products in the samples. The D-ESP is designed to evaluate the diversity and abundance of thermophilic (heat-loving) and methanotrophic (methane-processing) microorganisms present in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. D-ESP underwater operations took place throughout 2007.

    2008 ASTEP expeditions will include:

    ENDURANCE, the Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtarctic Explorer, developed by the University of Illinois-Chicago in collaboration with Stone Aerospace. A modified version of the DEPTHX vehicle (see above), ENDURANCE is an underwater robotic probe designed to explore the biological and geochemical composition of an ice-bound Antarctic lake. This project is intended to demonstrate a concept that may prove useful in the search for life on other planetary bodies where ice is known to exist. ENDURANCE will map Antarctica’s West Lake Bonney, a two-and-a-half mile long, one-mile wide, 130 foot-deep lake located in the continent’s Dry Valleys. The lake is perpetually covered with 12 to 15 feet of ice.

    Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) 2008