Science and Technology Research

The NASA Ames Space Science and Astrobiology Division is home to a variety of groups conducting cutting-edge research and mission participation.  Below are some highlighted activities within multiple areas of Ames expertise including Airborne Astronomy, Astrobiology, Astrochemistry, Mars, Moon, Microbial Ecology / Biogeochemistry, and Terrestrial Analog research.



Airborne Astronomy is one of the main interests of the astronomers here at NASA Ames. In addition to having hosted the airborne infrared (IR) telescope called the KAO, NASA Ames is now playing a key role for SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy).  SOFIA is a world-class far-infrared telescope mounted in the rear fuselage of a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft and NASA Ames is leading the SOFIA science operations.


We have an Astrobiology Institute Team lead by Scott Sandford, that performs research efforts that integrate a variety of disciplines around three scientific themes addressing the context for life, the origin and early evolution of life, and the future of life both on Earth and in the environment of space.



The Ames Astrochemistry Lab is a laboratory group that studies the formation, distribution, and fate of organic molecules in space, from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to amino acids. Extraterrestrial material analogs are produced in the laboratory under conditions realistically close to space environments and range from molecules and ions in gas-phase interstellar clouds and planetary atmospheres to interstellar, cometary, and planetary ices and dust.  From these experiments the Ames Astrochemistry group has built up a state-of-the-art database that has been used (in conjunction with astronomical data) to search for and identify molecules in space.


NASA Ames has significant expertise in the science and exploration of the planet Mars. We are home to the Mars General Circulation Modeling Group that does research to better understand the nature of the general circulation of the atmosphere of Mars, how that circulation is driven and how it affects martian long term climate. The Mars GCM group is hosting an upcoming workshop {} at NASA Ames focused on Mars Recent Climate Change.

NASA Ames scientists routinely analyze data from spacecraft sent to Mars in order to understand martian geology, climate, atmosphere, and potential for life.  Ames researchers use data from orbital spacecraft, landers, and rovers to further our understanding of the Red Planet.  Ames researchers are also interested in human exploration of Mars and conduct studies about how to do fieldwork and scientific investigations on Mars.


Terrestrial analogs are places on Earth that are similar to other places in the Solar System.  Ames researchers routinely visit such extreme environments to learn more about places such as the Moon, Mars, or asteroids.


The Microbial Ecology/Biogeochemistry Research Lab is involved in a number of projects involving photosynthetic microbial mats. Also, PI Brad Bebout also has an education page at: for more general information about mats, and curriculum written for a Middle School level.


Direct imaging of extrasolar planets in visible light, and Earth-like planets in particular, is an exciting but difficult problem requiring a telescope imaging system with 10-10 contrast at separations of 100mas and less. The Ames Coronagraphic Experiment is a laboratory devoted to advance high-constrast imaging techniques, in particular an efficient coronagraph called the Phase Induced Amplitude Apodization (PIAA) coronagraph, which may enable Earth-like planet imaging using 1 to 2 meter telescopes. This laboratory facility was built in 2008 and is designed to be flexible, operated in a highly stabilized air environment, and to complement efforts at NASA JPL’s High Contrast Imaging Testbed.




We are very proud of Tony Colaprete who is principal investigator on the LCROSS mission (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) that was selected as the Secondary Payload for the LRO mission. LCROSS delivered a 2000 kg impactor that created a plume of lunar ejecta which was observed by multiple Earth and space-based assets. From this mission we have learned that the Cabeus Crater near the south pole of the Moon contains ice and other volatiles within the permanently shadowed region, and we are learning about the nature of the lunar regolith at this location as well. You can read more about the LCROSS mission at ABC news, Popular Mechanics,, Astronomy Today, and just to name a few.

NASA Ames is developing the next mission to be sent to the Moon called LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer). {} LADEE will gather detailed information about conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.  A thorough understanding of these influences will help researchers predict how future lunar exploration may shape the moon’s environment and how the environment may affect future explorers.

NASA Ames scientist Rick Elphic is the LADEE Project Scientist while Tony Colaprete is the PI for the ultraviolet-visible spectrometer instrument.


Members of our Division are co-investiagtors on a number of missions such as The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) (David Des Marais, Nathalie Cabrol, Jeff Morre), the CRISM and HiRISE instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter MRO (Robert Haberle, Virginia Gulick, Janice L Bishop), the Mars Phoenix Lander (Chris McKay, Carol Stoker, Aaron Zent), and even ESA (European Space Agency missions such as Mars Express (Aaron Zent).  The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) {} rover named “Curiosity” is currently enroute to Mars and will land at Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.  Ames scientist David Blake is the Principal Investigator of CheMin, an X-ray Diffraction / X-ray Fluorescence instrument that will for the first time determine the quantitative mineralogy of the rocks and soil of Mars. {}.  NASA Ames scientists Dave Des Marais, Tori Hoehler, Thomas Bristow, Michael Wilson and Philippe Sarrazin are CheMin Co-Investigators and members of the MSL Science Team.  Ames scientist Chris McKay is a Co-Investigator on the SAM instrument (Goddard Spaceflight Center) and a member of the MSL Science Team.


Jeff Moore has recently been appointed Imaging Node Leader for NASA’s New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission. We have other outer Solar System scientists who are participating in that mission, including Dale Cruikshank who is also a participating scientist on the Cassini Mission (VIMS team), and he was also part of the Galileo Mission as well. Dale is also a Co-Investigator on a recently selected Mars Scout Mission.

Dr. Sandford was a Co-Investigator on the Stardust Mission which brought back dust from comet Wild2. See the photos that Dr. Sandford took while they were finding the sample return capsule from the Stardust Mission, transporting it back to JSC, and opening it up in the clean room.


Researchers in the NASA Ames Space Science and Astrobiology Division are using space based telescopes such as Hubble and Spitzer. Division scientists have  been leads or co-investigators on dozens of observing programs and have had more successful Spitzer proposals than any other group. In cycle two we had an unprecedented 75% win rate!

Among our scientists using Hubble are Jeff Cuzzi and Jack Lissauer. Dr. Lissauer is now perhaps best known for his recent paper with former SS&A division post-doctoral fellow Eugenio Rivera (now at UC Santa Cruz) on the discovery of the most earth like planet outside of our Solar System.

Speaking of planet finding, the Kepler spacecraft is currently collecting data to search for Earth-size and smaller planets around other stars.  The Kepler Project Office, Science Office, and Science Operations Center are located at NASA Ames with many Ames scientists working hard to search for habitable planets! Among the over 60 confirmed extrasolar planets (and over 2,300 candidate planets), Jack Lissauer has published several papers, including a Nature article reporting on a multiple-planet system around a Sun-like star named Kepler-11.