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

Curiosity Rover Can Work Through The Night On Mars.

The Wired http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/01/curiosity-night-ultraviolet/ (1/25, Mann, 798K) “Wired Science” blog reports how the Curiosity rover, unlike Spirit and Opportunity, is able to work during the night because of its nuclear battery and the Mars Hand Lens Imager’s four white and two ultraviolet LEDs that “help it explore once the sun goes down.” The article notes, “very […]

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CRISM reveals new views of Martian north pole

POC: Dr. Adrian Brown Dr. Adrian Brown of SSX and the STI Institute has published a paper detailing his research into the properties of the water and carbon dioxide ice around the north pole of Mars. Dr. Brown used 3 Mars years of data from the CRISM imaging infrared spectrometer to determine the retreat rate […]

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Curiosity Preparing To Drill In Area Once “Saturated” With Water

Coverage of NASA’s announcement regarding the upcoming first drill for Curiosity was widespread and very positive. The only negative mentions in the coverage involved the slight delay to when scientists originally thought this operation would occur. The CBS Evening News javascript:mediaPopup(‘http://media.bulletinnews.com/playclip.aspx?clipid=8cfc16ff41929f0&pub=nasa#20130116115343143232218166′) (1/15, story 9, 0:30, Pelley, 5.58M) broadcast , “NASA said today that it has […]

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Curiosity’s Trek To Mount Sharp Could Take Months

Florida Today http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20130115/SPACE/301150009/Martian-road-trip-next-Curiosity-speed-not-an-option (1/15, Halvorson, 53K) reports on the upcoming start of the Curiosity rover’s trek to Mount Sharp this spring. Michael Watkins, Curiosity mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “I think there is a good chance that it easily could take six months or a little longer to get to the final […]

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NASA Scientist Says Proof Of Organics On Mars Could Come Soon

NASA Scientist Says Proof Of Organics On Mars Could Come Soon.?The Sacramento (CA) Bee http://www.sacbee.com/2013/01/10/5104313/nasa-scientist-shares-mars-discoveries.html (1/10, Ortiz, 202K) reported: The Mars Curiosity rover mission has proved a smashing technological success for NASA, with 157 days spent by the rover on Mars providing a wealth of “firsts” and key information about the planet, said Michael Meyer, […]

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Curiosity Rover Captures Image Of “Martian Flower”

Curiosity Rover Captures Image Of “Martian Flower.” The New York Daily News http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/nasa-pic-sparks-flower-mars-rumor-article-1.1232997 (1/4, Murray, 543K) reported, “A peculiar petal-shaped cluster spotted on Mars sparked buzz that flowers might be blooming on the red planet. The so-called ‘Martian flower’ is seen in an image captured by NASA’s Curiosity rover last month. Pearl-colored petals appear to […]

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Curiosity Rover Cameras Gather Pictures For 360-Degree Panorama

NBC News http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/03/16329185-curiosity-rover-studies-rocks-and-a-flower-on-mars?lite (1/3, Boyle) reports in its “Cosmic Log” blog, “The cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover have been clicking away over the holidays – gathering enough pictures for a 360-degree panorama of its rocky surroundings at Yellowknife Bay, plus a close-up view showing a ‘Martian flower’ seemingly sprouting from the surface. The panorama was […]

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Curiosity Sends New Years Greeting From Mars

KLTV-TV javascript:videoPopup(‘http://ctv4.criticalmention.com/playerpage/player?params=Y2xpcElkPTQ5MDU5MTYmc2xpbT0xJnBvd2VyZWQ9MSZyZXBvcnQ9dHJ1ZSZoaWRlQ2xpcENvbnRyb2xzPTEmbm9oZWFkZXI9MSZub21lbnU9dHJ1ZSZhdXRvUGxheT0xJnBhcnRuZXJUb2tlbj00NmU1NmVjNjNiYmYxMGRlMDEzYmZhNGRiNzY5NDY2MQ==#20130102120355143232218166′,410,320) Tyler, TX (1/1, 4:45 p.m. CST, 21K) reports, “We have some video for you. This is from Mars Curiosity to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve revelers watching giant screens in times square saw a special happy new year greeting from Mars, which, right now, is a little over 200 […]

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Curiosity Heading To Mars Mountain In New Year

ABC World News javascript:mediaPopup(‘http://media.bulletinnews.com/playclip.aspx?clipid=8cfb4e6bec676aa&pub=nasa#20121231120332143232218166′) (12/30, story 11, 0:25, Muir, 7.43M) reported, “To the video this evening from Mars where the Curiosity rover is gearing up for its own New Year’s resolution, which is to head for the hills. The rover’s big mission this New Year, setting off to climb its first Martian mountain. … […]

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