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2001 Annual Science Report

NASA Johnson Space Center Reporting  |  JUL 2000 – JUN 2001

Executive Summary

Executive Summary — JSC (dm)

The JSC Astrobiology Institute Team is very diverse and has about as many non-JSC members as it does JSC members. Most of the JSC team consists of contractor scientists, student interns, a NAI post-doctoral fellow, and scientists from nearby institutions. Our team represents a variety of disciplines including geology, mineralogy, microbial physiology, geochemistry, and planetology.

The uniting theme for the JSC team is sample and material analysis to provide characterization data on terrestrial samples, astromaterials, and experimental samples. The types of data sought are usually features related to microbial life. Such features include morphology of living microbes and their surroundings including biofilms, as well as the morphology of fossilized forms of these living biota. In addition to morphology, chemistry and mineralogy of microbial produced features and fossilized microbes are of great interest to us. We typically using probe instruments (SEM, TEM, electron microprobes, TOF-SIMs, double laser beam mass spectrometers) to acquire information on living or dead microbial life. The overall goal is to relate chemistry, mineralogy, atomic structure, morphology, spectral interactions, and other properties for specific types of features so that multiple data can be used to characterize or fingerprint life in all its forms (including ancient fossils and bioassisted mineral precipitates). But we also strive to understand the processes that create the characteristics of life, the processes that alter or fossilize life, and the processes that produce and preserve interaction between life forms and rocks or minerals. Fingerprints of life are valuable for themselves, but they may also contain the history of that life and its environment over time.

The ability to identify the presence of life or the former presence of life has been taken for granted in many types of terrestrial samples. However, as we look more and more at astromaterials from beyond Earth (and also take a fresh look at archean samples on Earth), the scientific community has realized that it is not always obvious or easy to determine whether life was or is present in the rocks, minerals, soils, and fluids of Earth or another planet.

Consequently, our overall goal is to develop better techniques for detecting and understanding life. It will be absolutely necessary to do this for returned Mars samples, but these techniques should first be well tested on terrestrial samples, and should also be applied to other types of samples as well: meteorites, cosmic dust, cometary dust, and samples from various satellites and small bodies. Because of the extreme interest in the possibility of life elsewhere, we must develop strong criteria for detecting it and certifying it. That is the current overreaching goal of the JSC team. That may also become the core objective for all of NASA in the coming decade or two.