Exobiology Branch (Code SSX)

The CheMin Instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory
The CheMin Instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory

Mission Statement

The branch conducts interdisciplinary basic research in exobiology to understand pre-biotic chemistry, and the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. We provide an interface between the external academic community and NASA programs. Our work also informs the selection, design and development of NASA life detection missions; the design and fabrication of spaceflight instruments to evaluate habitability and detect biosignatures; and the interpretation of astrobiology mission and astronomical data.

Exobiology Branch 2015
Exobiology Branch 2015 – 1st row left to right. David Blake, Orlando Santos, Esther Weber, Mark Ditzler, David Des Marais, Linda Jahnke 2nd row left to right. Arthur Weber, George Cooper 3rd row left to right. Michael Kubo, Rocco Mancinelli, Jackson Lee, Tori Hoehler 4th row left to right. Sanjoy Som, Thomas Murphy, Andro Rios, Mike Wilson 5th row left to right. Fathi Karouia, Craig Everroad, Milena Popović, Samantha Yim, Niki Parenteau 6th row left to right. Joshua Reynolds, Bennett Kapili, Melissa Thang, Yasaman Mortensen 7th row left to right. Adrian Carabello, Leslie Bebout, Marisa Mayer, Angela Detweiler, Mastewal Abate, Oana Marcu Sandy Dueck, Joseph Solvason – Principal Investigators not pictured. Brad Bebout, Tom Bristow, Andrew Pohorille, David Summers

 

 

The CheMin Instrument

The Exobiology Branch is home to David Blake, the Principal Investigator for the CheMin instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled for launch in 2011.

CheMin field testing in Death Valley
CheMin field testing in Death Valley

 

A Miniature Gas Chromatograph-Ion Mobility Spectrometer
A Miniature Gas Chromatograph-Ion Mobility Spectrometer

 

The CheMin instrument utilizes X-ray diffraction and flourescence to provide difinitive minerology of rock samples (both elemental analysis and crystal structure determination).

CheMin
The CheMin instrument being integrated onto the MSL rover. Next stop, Mars!

 

Early Habitable Environments and the Evolution of Complexity

The Exobiology Branch is home to David Des Marais, the Principal Investigator of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) Ames Team, which focuses on Early Habitable Environments and the Evolution of Complexity.  The overarching goal of this scientific program is to understand the creation and distribution of early habitable environments in emerging planetary systems.  The Ames Team provides a program of integrative, mission-enabled and mission-enabling research on habitability and a thematically related program of education and public outreach focused around informal education in high-impact venues.  Andrew Pohorille, Tori Hoehler, and Sandy Dueck are also members of the Exobiology Branch and hold key roles as Lead Co-Investigators on the team.  To learn more about the NAI Ames Team, visit their website at www.amesteam.arc.nasa.gov.

 

NAI Team
NAI Team

 

Origin of Life Research

For nearly 40 years, the Exobiology Branch at Ames has been the main center for origins of life research at NASA, and a world leader in this scientific area. Currently, the branch has the unique feature of being the only center within the NASA Astrobiology Program that has a sustained, long-term program of theoretical and computational studies on the origins of life. This research program, which contains both molecular and system-level components, is leveraged by the supercomputing facilities at Ames and by Ames’ status as the NASA lead center in information science and technology.

 

Pohorille Article
Pohorille Article

 

The image shown above is the cover art for the latest issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry, highlighting an article by Andrew Pohorille, a Principal Investigator in the Branch, with co-authors Christopher Jarzynski and Christophe Chipot, titled “Good practices in free-energy calculations”. From the abstract: “As access to computational resources continues to increase, free-energy calculations have emerged as a powerful tool that can play a predictive role in a wide range of research areas. … In this contribution, the current best practices for carrying out free-energy calculations using free energy perturbation and nonequilibrium work methods are discussed demonstrating that, at little to no additional cost, free-energy estimates could be markedly improved and bounded by meaningful error estimates.”

Dr. Pohorille is also the recepient of this year’s H. Julian Allen Award, bestowed by NASA Ames for best research paper. Titled “Calculating free energies using average force”, the paper appeared in the Journal of Chemical Physics (co-author Eric Darve), Volume 115, Number 20, November 2001. According to the Citation Index in the Web of Science the paper has been cited 111 times as of March 2010. From the abstract: “A new, general formula that connects the derivatives of the free energy along the selected, generalized coordinates of the system with the instantaneous force acting on these coordinates is derived. The instantaneous force is defined as the force acting on the coordinate of interest so that when it is subtracted from the equations of motion the acceleration along this coordinate is zero. The formula applies to simulations in which the selected coordinates are either unconstrained or constrained to fixed values.”

The Branch is also home to Dr. Arthur Weber, a SETI Institute researcher, who works together with his wife Esther to study the pre-biotic chemistry of sugars, and how these molecules may have led to the origin of life.

 

Weber Lab - The role of sugars in pre-biotic chemistry.
Weber Lab – The role of sugars in pre-biotic chemistry.

 

Facilities

The Branch is housed in Building 239 at NASA Ames Research Center. Laboratory facilities available include analytical equipment for the characterization of gas and aqueous chemistry, instruments for the detection of various biomarkers including sugars and organics, microbiology facilities including the culture of microbial mat communities, electron and RAMAN microscopes, a molecular biology suite, and informatics computational capabilities.

 

 

 

Code SSX Highlights

SS Weekly Highlight

Title : Microbial activity in Earth’s driest desert — Alfonso Davila (SSX) Soils in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert (Chile) are the driest and most inhospitable on Earth. They have long been considered analogous to Martian regolith. […]

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SS Weekly Highlights

Clay Formation Study Leads to New Model for Early Martian Climate. How “warm” is warm?—- A study led by Dr. Bishop of the SSX Branch at NASA Ames finds that short-term bursts of warmer environments during an otherwise colder early martian climate explains the mineralogy on Mars. […]

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SS Weekly Highlight

Long-term multi-generational evolutionary studies of bacteria in the spaceflight environment — Abstract: Understanding how organisms adapt to the spaceflight environment is an essential component of future space exploration, and informs how life co-evolves with unique environments. […]

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SS Division Highlight

 Motivating students in STEM education and developing classroom curriculum by doing real science with NASA Investigating microbial mat ecosystem dynamics of Elkhorn Slough – How do ecosystems adjust to changing environmental factors? […]

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SSX Branch Highlights

Exobiology Branch (SSX) Updates MSL/CheMin Citizen Science in K12 Schools Lassen Astrobiology Intern Program Ames Project Excellence Development Program (APEX) Life Detection THINKubator […]

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Rocks Rich in Silica Present Puzzles for Mars Rover Team
Rocks - JPL

In detective stories, as the plot thickens, an unexpected clue often delivers more questions than answers. In this case, the scene is a mountain on Mars. The clue: the chemical compound silica. Lots of silica. The sleuths: a savvy band of Earthbound researchers whose agent on Mars is NASA’s laser-flashing, one-armed mobile laboratory, Curiosity. NASA’s […]

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Mars Rover Breaks Driving Record

Mars Rover Breaks Driving Record. The Pasadena (CA) Star-News (7/28, 89K) reports that on Monday, NASA announced that “the Opportunity Mars rover broke a world record this month when, after 10.5 years, its odometer read 25 miles.” The piece notes that “the space rover has gone 40 times above and beyond NASA’s expectations, said John […]

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Ames Instrument Helps Identify the First Habitable Environment on Mars, Wins Invention Award
CheMin

June 24, 2014 RELEASE: 14-047AR Ames Instrument Helps Identify the First Habitable Environment on Mars, Wins Invention Award NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, has won the 2013 NASA Government Invention of the Year award for the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) X-ray diffraction instrument aboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. CheMin’s identification […]

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Mars Rover Continues Mission Toward Mount Sharp

Ken Kremer at Universe Today (6/22, 18K) writes about NASA’s Curiosity mission, which is traveling across the floor of Mars’ Gale Crater toward “Mount Sharp on an expedition in search of the chemical ingredients of life that could support Martian microbes if they ever existed.” […]

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