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
“Microbes may have once happily existed on the surface of Mars, according to chemical analysis of a sedimentary rock in the Red Planet’s Gale Crater. NASA geologist and exobiologist David Blake discusses evidence for an ancient freshwater lake in the crater, and describes the mineral-chomping microbes that might have thrived there.” http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/03/15/2013/curiosity-hits-paydirt-new-clues-to-life-on-mars.html […]
RELEASE: 13-20AR NASA ROVER FINDS CONDITIONS ONCE SUITED FOR ANCIENT LIFE ON MARSMOFFETT FIELD, Calif. — An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA’s Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon — some of the key chemical ingredients for life — in […]
AOPA Pilot (3/14, Namowitz) reported on the same day NASA was announcing the first findings from Curiosity’s drill, “the NASA/JPL Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Project Team learned that another pending question had been answered in the positive: The National Aeronautic Association announced that the team had won the 2012 Robert J. Collier Trophy ‘in recognition of […]
Left image: At the center is the hole in a rock called “John Klein” where the Curiosity rover conducted its first sample drilling on Mars. The sample-collection hole is 0.63 inch (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep. The “mini drill” test hole near it is the same diameter, with a depth […]
The Cleveland Leader http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/20192 (2/17, Kent) reports, “NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover successfully drilled into Martian rock for the very first time without any complications, and is now readying to ingest the rock sample that it picked up about a week ago. The mission’s chief scientist, Joh Grotzinger, says that he expects this to happen very […]
New Scientist http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23161-curiositys-first-drilling-hints-at-martian-mining.html (2/13, Grossman) reports Curiosity’s first drill on Mars this past weekend “could lay the groundwork for future Mars explorers to build structures or even to mine the Red Planet.” Louise Jandura of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, “Drilling anywhere is hard, but drilling on a rover kicks it up a notch.” JPL […]
Photographer Develops Interactive Panorama From Curiosity Images. The Wired http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/02/curiosity-drill-panorama/ (2/12, Mann, 798K) “Wired Science” blog reports on the Curiosity rover’s first drill, noting, “With this incredible interactive panorama, you can stand right beside the rover and see both its amazing environment and the fruits of its labor.” It was developed by photographer Andrew Bodrov […]
The AP (2/8) reports, “The Curiosity rover has drilled a test hole in a Martian rock in preparation for the real thing.” NASA released images yesterday of the results of the “mini drill test” which it commanded Curiosity to make before full drilling operations. The BBC News (2/8, Amos) notes that “soon, Curiosity will be […]