About Space Science at NASA Ames

Welcome to The Space Science and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center

The Space Science and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center conducts research and mission-related activities that are structured around the study of the origins and evolution of stars, the interstellar medium, planetary systems, and life on Earth and (perhaps) elsewhere. These address some of the most fundamental questions pursued by science, involving our place in the universe; questions that have been asked by humans since the dawn of time.

Space Science & Astrobiology Division personnel participate in a variety of major missions. Division scientists have a long history of space exploration and were Investigators, Team Members, or Interdisciplinary Scientists on past missions such as Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, Galileo, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, the Infrared Space Observatory, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Phoenix lander and Stardust missions. Our scientists are currently involved with multiple spacecraft operating within the Solar System including the Cassini mission orbiting Saturn, the CRISM and HiRISE instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), and the Mars Curiosity rover that recently landed on Mars. Our Division scientists represent one of the largest user groups of the Spitzer Space Telescope and Division scientists are also involved in the development of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), planetary detection with the Kepler mission, and development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Our scientists also participate on non-NASA missions such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa mission and European Space Agencey (ESA) missions such as Mars Express.

Ames is recognized as a world leader in astrobiology, astronomy (especially in the infrared), molecular astrophysics, and planetary science. Our scientists model and study the life cycle of stars, the interstellar medium, planetary atmospheres, planetary geology, and are engaged in the search for extrasolar planets. In pursuing basic research in these areas, scientists in the Space Science Division perform pioneering basic research to further fundamental knowledge and developing technology for future space missions. To accomplish this objective the Division has assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists including astronomers, astrophysicists, chemists, microbiologists, physicists, and planetary scientists.

Major elements of the Space Science & Astrobiology Division’s program include the study of the interstellar gas and dust that form the raw material for stars, planets, and life; the processes of star and planet formation; the evolution of planets and their atmospheres; the origin of life and its early evolution on the Earth; the search for past or present life throughout the solar system with emphasis on Mars; and advanced technologies for robotic and human exploration of space.

CheMin: (Chemistry & Mineralogy)

An important science goal of the MSL mission is to identify and characterize past or present habitable environments as recorded in sediments and rocks. CheMin is a definitive mineralogy instrument that will identify and quantify the minerals present in rocks and soil delivered to it by the Sample Acquisition, Sample Processing and Handling (SA/SPaH) system. By determining the minerals in rocks and soils, CheMin will assess the involvement of water in their formation, deposition, or alteration. In addition, CheMin data will be useful in the search for potential mineral biosignatures (or any phenomenon produced by life), energy sources for life or indicators of past habitable environments. CheMin can identify and quantify minerals in complex natural samples such as basalts, multicomponent evaporite systems (a natural mineral deposit left after the evaporation of a body of water), and soils.

David Blake, of NASA Ames Research Center, began working 21 years ago on a compact X-ray diffraction instrument for use in planetary missions. His work with colleagues has resulted in commercial portable instruments for use in geological field work on Earth, as well as the CheMin instrument. The spinoff instruments have found innovative applications in screening for counterfeit pharmaceuticals in developing nations and analyzing archaeological finds.

“You get a series of spacings and intensities for each mineral,” Blake said. “It’s more than a fingerprint because it not only provides definitive identification, but we know the reason for each pattern, right down to the atomic level.” 

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO): Leading NASA’s Way Back to the Moon

Launched on June 18, 2009, LCROSS traveled to the Moon as a co-manifested payload aboard the launch vehicle for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). LRO is designed to map the lunar surface and characterize landing sites for future missions.

Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS): NASA’s Mission to Search for Water on the Moon

The Mission Objectives of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) included confirming the presence or absence of water ice in a permanently shadowed crater at the Moon’s South Pole. The identification of water is very important to the future of human activities on the Moon. LCROSS excavated the permanently dark floor of Cabeus Crater with two heavy impactors in 2009 to test the theory that ancient ice lies buried there. The impact ejected material from the crater’s surface to create a plume that specialized instruments analyzed for the presence of water (ice and vapor), hydrocarbons and hydrated materials.

LCROSS also provided technologies and modular, reconfigurable subsystems that can be used to support future mission architectures.

Ames Research Center (ARC) managed the mission, conducted mission operations, and developed the payload instruments, while Northrop Grumman designed and built the spacecraft for this innovative mission. Ames mission scientists spearheaded the data analysis. This fast-paced, low-cost, mission leveraged some existing NASA systems, Northrop-Grumman spacecraft expertise, and Ames’ Lunar Prospector experience.

Kepler Mission NASA Launch Schedule web page.

NASA’s first mission capable of finding Earth-size planets around other stars.

L-14 (14 days before launch) Press Conference Media Resources
full Press Kit (3 Mb pdf)