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.
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.
The CheMin instrument utilizes X-ray diffraction and flourescence to provide difinitive minerology of rock samples (both elemental analysis and crystal structure determination).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.” […]
The March 7th Science magazine had a number of articles on the 100th anniversary of the discovery of X-ray diffraction. There is a 2-page timeline of discoveries that includes CheMin’s first diffraction pattern on Mars. View here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/343/6175/1092.full.pdf […]
The NASA Ames Astrobiology Team has partnered with the California Academy of Sciences in the “Dark Universe Program,” a new cosmology show that began January 31. On Saturdays from February 8 March 15, the Ames team will discuss the Mars Science Laboratory Mission and will demonstrate and engage museum visitors in real-time hands-on analyses of […]
David Blake presented a talk at the opening ceremony of the International Year of Crystallography, 2014 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France on January 22nd. The talk covered the natural history of the biogenic elements, their delivery to the rocky planets of the inner solar system, and our search for habitable environments and organic materials […]
San Jose Mercury News – Life on Mars still beyond our reach to discover it. “There may have once been life on Mars, but for now, it is beyond our technological reach to find it. The soil chemistry at the site the rover Curiosity is exploring and radiation from space, combined with the limits of […]
NASA’s Curiosity rover is providing vital insight about Mars’ past and current environments that will aid plans for future robotic and human missions. http://www.nasa.gov/press/2013/december/nasa-rover-results-include-first-age-measurement-on-mars-and-help-for-human […]
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project received confirmation from Mars Sunday (Nov. 10) that the Curiosity rover has successfully transitioned back into nominal surface operations mode. Curiosity had been in safe mode since Nov. 7, when an unexpected software reboot (also known as a warm reset) occurred during a communications pass with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. […]
The Ames Research Center Team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute cohosted the 2013 Lassen Volcanic Dark Sky Festival on August 9-11, 2013. During the three-day festival, over 45 events were held and more than 4200 visitors learned about preserving the dark sky and the study of astrobiology in the park. The public was excited to […]
The Christian Science Monitor (9/27, Spotts, 540K) reports on five new papers about what the Curiosity rover found during its first 100 days on Mars. It found that liquid water was present in Gale Crater, answering the “overarching question” of whether Mars was habitable at one period in time. The rover also discovered a type […]
NASA’s Curiosity rover is revealing a great deal about Mars, from long-ago processes in its interior to the current interaction between the Martian surface and atmosphere. Examination of loose rocks, sand and dust has provided new understanding of the local and global processes on Mars. Analyses of observations and measurements by the rover’s science instruments […]