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NASA plans to colonize Mars

NASA may not be planning to put a human on Mars until the 2030s, but the agency’s top scientist said colonizing the planet is a key part of its agenda – as well as its search for extraterrestrial life.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, NASA’s chief scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan emphasized that the quest to find alien life is focused primarily on our own solar system, where potential targets include Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Titan. In order to most effectively survey Mars for signs of life, though, Stofan said putting humans on the ground, and establishing a presence there, is a big priority.

In response to a question about whether or not NASA plans to bring back astronauts that reach the Red Planet, Stofan said, “We would definitely plan on bringing them back. We like to talk about pioneering Mars rather than just exploring Mars, because once we get to Mars we will set up some sort of permanent presence.”

NASA has expressed such interest before, most recently proposing to send a small greenhouse to the planet in order to experiment with cultivating plant life – something that would be essential to establishing a permanent colony in the future.

Although Mars doesn’t currently seem to be a great habitat for existing life, Stofan argued it’s still possible things may be living beneath the surface – something that can only be explored effectively by humans, not robots.

“Humans can actually read a landscape, go through a lot of rocks – crack them open, throw them, pick up the next one,” she told the Guardian. “Rovers are great, they do amazing science, but it is a lot more tedious process – they go much less far than a human can cover in a day. Having humans on the surface is how I think we are going to be able to demonstrate totally conclusively that life did evolve on Mars.”

Currently, the American space agency is planning to put a human on Mars in 2035 – a plan that depends on the successful completion of a few different missions, as well as stable funding over the course of the next couple of decades. As RT reported earlier this month, a new study by the US National Research Council found that under NASA’s current budget trajectory, reaching the Red Planet would be unlikely.

“Absent a very fundamental change in the nation’s way of doing business, it is not realistic to believe that we can achieve the consensus goal of reaching Mars,” said Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and co-chair of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Human Spaceflight.

Stofan downplayed budgetary concerns, however, saying the agency has received “extremely favorable budgets in the last few years” and that tight budgets have inspired innovation at NASA. She also noted that the agency’s asteroid mission – which involves capturing an asteroid and redirecting its orbit around the moon so that astronauts can land on it – is all intended to test technology that would be used on a future Mars mission.

Meanwhile, the contamination of either Earth or Mars remains “a huge concern.”

“First, of all you wouldn’t want to bring any weird microbes from Mars to the Earth that could potentially be harmful to people here,” she said. “In the future when we have Mars samples come back, they will go through an incredible procedure basically equivalent to an ebola level quarantine facility to make sure they are not going to contaminate Earth. Then there is contamination of Mars. We are looking for life on Mars so we don’t want to carry microbes with us, ‘discover them’ and declare victory.”

Looking elsewhere, the chief scientist added that a visit to Europa is “clearly our next step,” with Titan not far behind.

“Over the last few years we have started to formulate the next mission to [Jupiter’s moon] Europa – we know there is an ocean under that icy crust. There are plumes of water coming out of the cracks in the south polar region. There’s orange gunk all over the surface – what the heck is that stuff? … We have [also] flown the Cassini spacecraft through the geysers erupting off [Saturn’s moon] Enceladus – we know there are organics in those water plumes but we don’t know how complex those organics are.”

Just last week, NASA scientists unveiled a new plan that would allow the agency to send a quadcopter drone to Titan in order to search for life. The drone would be capable of flying over Titan’s landscape and seas, collect samples, and deliver the samples to a nuclear-powered “mothership” – either a larger lander or a balloon – where it can recharge its batteries for another flight. Researchers are continuing to move forward with the idea, but such a mission would also be decades away from becoming a reality. No launch would occur until the 2040s.

source

AbGradCon '14

I am excited to announce that we are currently accepting applications for AbGradCon 2014!  This is the 10th annual Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon), an interdisciplinary conference encompassing all fields of astrobiological research.  Previous attendees have come from fields as diverse as astronomers, biologists, chemists, educators, engineers, geologists, planetary scientists, and social scientists and is a great opportunity to not only interact with scientists doing similar research, but to become exposed to the diverse research in this field.  This conference is organized by and for graduate students and early-career scientists (within two years of graduation) and will be held at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY on July 27 – 31, 2014.

In order to promote interaction amongst early career astrobiologists we strive to provide the majority of funding to U.S. based attendees (and try to support international attendees as much as possible) and give a priority to applicants who have not previously attended an AbGradCon. Graduate students and early-career scientists whose research addresses a topic relevant to astrobiology are encouraged to visit the website for information on the abstract application, funding for US-affiliated participants and more: http://abgradcon.org. Also, find us on Facebook or on saganet.org.  Abstracts are due by March 31, 2014.

AbGradCon attendees are also invited to apply for this year’s Research Focus Group, to be held prior to AbGradCon (July 25th - 27th). It’s a fantastic opportunity for anyone interested in pursuing a career in grant-funded science (undergrads, grad students, and post-docs — one and all!). Participants will be grouped with 3 to 4 other Astrobiologists of diverse backgrounds who will work together leading up to and over the course of RFG to write and present a proposal. Participants will then panel-review other proposals, and the winners will be featured in the NAI newsletter. RFG will be located at RPI’s Darrin Freshwater Institute (DFWI) on Lake George in New York, with meals, lodging, and transportation to and from DFWI provided for all RFG participants.

AbGradCon '14

AbGradCon 2014, July 27 - 31st in Troy, New York!

Calling all Astrobiology grad students and post-docs! Planning for AbGradCon 2014 is well under way. AbGradCon is a conference organized by and for early career astrobiologists, without those pesky P.I.s and professors getting in the way.

This year, the conference will be held at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York from July 27 - July 31.

More information, including our anticipated funding availability and abstract submission instructions, will be coming in early 2014.

2014 Santander Summer School: Habitable Environments in the Universe

Grad students:

The 2014 International Summer School in Astrobiology will be held at the summer campus of the Spanish National University (UIMP), Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander, Spain on June 23-27, 2014.

This year’s theme is “Habitable Environments in the Universe.” The school will provide an interdisciplinary examination of the nature and evaluation of habitability, an environment’s ability to support life. Topics to be covered will include life’s requirements and the limits of life, the factors that affect habitability for local and global environments, and potentially habitable environments in our Solar System and on extrasolar planets.

The school includes a week of lectures from international experts, round-table discussions, student projects, and a field trip to a nearby site of astrobiological interest. On-site accommodation and all meals are provided.

The application deadline will be February 28, 2014 for NAI student travel scholarships, and students of any nationality studying at a US institution are eligible. These scholarships cover travel costs, school fees, accommodation and meals.

NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration

Junior/Senior undergrads and first year grad students:

NASA Ames Academy is a Diverse Summer Program that Focuses on Leadership, Team Building, and Provides Direct Contact with NASA Research in Advanced Science and Engineering. The 10-week summer Academy, for undergraduates and graduate students, runs from the 2nd week of June through the third week of August. Transportation and housing will be provided byNASA in addition to a $4k stipend from your Space Grant for the summer.

For application information visit: http://academyapp.com/.
For information on the academy visit: http://academy.arc.nasa.gov/

Application deadline Feb. 15!!!

NASA Space Settlement Contest

http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/Contest/

This annual contest, co-sponsored by NASA Ames and the National Space Society (NSS) is for all students up to 12th grade (18 years old) from anywhere in the world. Individuals, small teams of two to five, and large teams of six or more are judged separately. Entries are also grouped by age/grade of the oldest contestant for judging. The age groups are 7th and under, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th. The grand prize is awarded to the best entry regardless of contestant age. Students develop space settlement designs and related materials. These are sent to NASA Ames for judgement. Submissions must be received by March 1.

sagansense:

NASA’s Next Frontier: Growing Plants On The Moon

A small team at NASA’s Ames Research Center has set out to “boldly grow where no man has grown before” – and they’re doing it with the help of thousands of children, a robot, and a few specially customized GoPro cameras.

In 2015, NASA will attempt to make history by growing plants on the Moon. If they are successful, it will be the first time humans have ever brought life to another planetary body. Along the way, they will make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of biology, agriculture, and life on other worlds. And though they may fail, the way they are going about their mission presents a fascinating case study of an innovative model for public-private collaboration that may very well change space entrepreneurship.

The Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team, a group of NASA scientists, contractors, students and volunteers, is finally bringing to life an idea that has been discussed and debated for decades. They will try to grow arabidopsis, basil, sunflowers, and turnips in coffee-can-sized aluminum cylinders that will serve as plant habitats. But these are no ordinary containers – they’re packed to the brim with cameras, sensors, and electronics that will allow the team to receive image broadcasts of the plants as they grow. These habitats will have to be able to successfully regulate their own temperature, water intake, and power supply in order to brave the harsh lunar climate.

imageA 3d-printed model of the plant habitat – it will include cameras, sensors, micro fluidics system, and a seed module needed to sustain life on another world. Credit: Hemil Modi

However, it won’t just be NASA scientists who are watching the results closely – the success of this experiment will require the assistance of schools and citizen scientists.

In a brilliant mix of creativity and frugality, NASA will send schools their own set of habitats so they can grow the same plants that are being sent to the Moon. The reasons for this are two fold. First, every experiment needs a control, and instead of spending the money to duplicate the experiment multiple times, they can crowdsource it. By collecting the data from thousands of experiments, they can gain valuable insights in an entirely new way. Second, it allows children to be part of the moment – to not just watch from afar, but to gain experience and knowledge by actively participating.

It is quite unusual to hear of a significant NASA project that is so simple, small-scale, and low-cost. Thanks to the rapid advances in consumer electronics over the last few years, parts that would have once cost millions of dollars now cost just hundreds. But what really made this project feasible was an unexpected opportunity: the Google Lunar X Prize, the search giant’s twenty-million-dollar incentive prize for a private company to launch a robotic spacecraft that lands on the moon, travels across the surface, and transmits back two “Mooncasts” by December 31, 2015. Multiple teams are competing – and whoever ends up winning will likely fly with this special payload on board.

imageLearn more about the Google Lunar X Prize. Watch the video for an 8-minute mission overview.

With this model NASA doesn’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars or wait years for the next mission to the Moon. According to Dr. Chris McKay, a well-renowned planetary scientist, this project would have cost $300 million two decades ago – now, NASA can build and launch it for under $2 million. It serves as a win for both NASA and private space industry. Dr. McKay compared it to the early days of airplanes and airmail, “Just like we buy tickets on commercial airlines, why shouldn’t we buy space on commercial flights?”

Without this opportunity, it’s uncertain this project would have ever gotten off the ground – and that would have meant a major missed opportunity not only for future astronauts, but also for people here on Earth as well.

“With the competition underway, many of these capabilities are in development or expected. Nonetheless, given that the Google Lunar XPRIZE teams are – by their very nature – characterized by strong innovation and enterprise, it is reasonable to assume that these capabilities will be established and not improbable that further market opportunities could be developed,” said Greg Sadlier, who led the study. “Notably, many of the opportunities we have identified could be served without actually winning the Google Lunar XPRIZE, or even achieving orbit.”
Via recommended article: "Study Estimates Market Worth $1.9 Billion For Google Lunar XPRIZE Competitors Within A Decade" [spacefellowship]

To Dr. McKay, this is “step one in the quest to develop biological based life support systems on other worlds;” or, to put it another way, “this is the Neil Armstrong of the plant world.” The conditions of the moon are more characteristic of deep space than anywhere else we can access and quite different than growing plants on a space shuttle or space station. This experiment will test whether plants can survive radiation, flourish in partial gravity, and thrive in a small, controlled environment – the same obstacles that we will need to overcome in order to build a greenhouse on the Moon, or create life on Mars.

We may also learn a great deal about how to grow food in inhospitable climates here on our own planet. Dr. Robert Bowman, the team’s chief biologist, described how plants constantly have to cope with harsh environments and threats: “Simply knowing how plants deal with stress on the moon can really tell us a lot about how they deal with stress right here on Earth.” We know how plants are affected by conditions like drought – by exposing them to entirely new factors, we can advance our understanding of how they function.

Even if the seeds fail to germinate on the Moon, the fact that NASA is taking targeted risks without incurring significant costs could change business-as-usual for the once-legendary institution. Like most bureaucracies NASA has become quite risk averse and sensitive to perceptions of failure. But with commercial partnerships, they can experience a flop without necessarily having it make national headlines – they don’t have to put their entire reputation on the line every single time.

imageRead about Google Lunar XPRIZE team “Astrobiotic" and the robot they’ll be landing on the moon, launching aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2013 [Wired]

It may not be too long before space exploration missions are conducted more like technology startups and less like government programs. Dr. McKay sees a world of possibilities emerging from this democratization: “I see much better, more innovative experiments. When your experiment costs 300 million dollars, and you do one a decade, you can’t take any risks. You’ve got to be very conservative in what you do. But if your experiment is a million dollars and being done by grad students, you can do crazy and brilliant things.”

Whenever we do spread life beyond our own planet, it will fundamentally change our cultural perception of what is possible. As Dr. Pete Worden, Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, explained excitedly, “The first picture of a plant growing on another world – that picture will live forever. It will be as iconic as the first footprint on the moon.” Just like the Apollo missions drove an entire generation to embrace technology and science, making the final frontier more accessible will inspire us to strive for even greater accomplishments.

“The breadth and the size of these projected markets are attributes of a new era of lunar exploration quite different from the Apollo era,” said Alexandra Hall, Senior Director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. “Our teams and their investors are seeing future opportunities and taking the steps now to ensure that they will be among the first companies to leverage them.”

Sources: Forbes; Image (main) via "25 Good Reasons To Go To The Moon" by science blogger Ken Murphy; Quotes excerpted via spacefellowship article HERE.

Hm, let’s see…growing life on another world, learning about how plants deal with stress, getting the public involved, and doing it for under $2 million?

Could this be the best thing ever?!?!?

Yup.

Les's Blog: I cannot volunteer my time to work on NASA business during the furlough

This article sums up the mentality of many scientists; actually it made me feel a little bit guilty for not putting in longer days.

But I’m on an international fellowship, and I get paid pretty much no matter what. It isn’t really fair.

But then, I do live in a country where I barely speak the language and my only friend is my husband, so I guess it all balances out?

sagansense:

A Mission to Europa: NASA Zeroes in On What They’ll Search For

Most of what scientists know of Jupiter’s moon Europa they have gleaned from a dozen or so close flybys from NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1979 and NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even in these fleeting, paparazzi-like encounters, scientists have seen a fractured, ice-covered world with tantalizing signs of a liquid water ocean under its surface. Such an environment could potentially be a hospitable home for microbial life. But what if we got to land on Europa’s surface and conduct something along the lines of a more in-depth interview? What would scientists ask? A new study in the journal Astrobiology authored by a NASA-appointed science definition team lays out their consensus on the most important questions to address.

"If one day humans send a robotic lander to the surface of Europa, we need to know what to look for and what tools it should carry," said Robert Pappalardo, the study’s lead author, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life."

The paper was authored by scientists from a number of other NASA centers and universities, including the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Texas, Austin; and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The team found the most important questions clustered around composition: what makes up the reddish “freckles” and reddish cracks that stain the icy surface? What kind of chemistry is occurring there? Are there organic molecules, which are among the building blocks of life?

Additional priorities involved improving our images of Europa - getting a look around at features on a human scale to provide context for the compositional measurements. Also among the top priorities were questions related to geological activity and the presence of liquid water: how active is the surface? How much rumbling is there from the periodic gravitational squeezes from its planetary host, the giant planet Jupiter? What do these detections tell us about the characteristics of liquid water below the icy surface?

"Landing on the surface of Europa would be a key step in the astrobiological investigation of that world," said Chris McKay, a senior editor of the journal Astrobiology, who is based at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "This paper outlines the science that could be done on such a lander. The hope would be that surface materials, possibly near the linear crack features, include biomarkers carried up from the ocean."

via heythereuniverse

electricspacekoolaid:

Happy Moon Day - July 20, 2013

"We have walked on the moon. We open our minds to the universe."

"Locked within our sun are mysteries that have confounded man since time began. We have reached out with our telescopes. We have reached in with our microscopes. Seeking… What is the source of life?. What combination of energy and elements brought it into existence. What is the relationship between the non-living and living things. How delicate the balance. Man slowly begins to realize how fragile is his bubble of life.” - Moonwalk One - 1969/1970

The Apollo 11 mission launched on July 16th, 1969, successfully landed on the moon on this date, July 20, 1969. 

"3 Men who had done what no man has done before. A technological feat believed beyond the realm of possibility.. The fulfillment of an age old dream.. Something that touched an irrational, unthinking instinct in us all."

the-star-stuff:

NASA finds hidden ocean on Saturn’s moon Titan

Using incredibly precise measurements from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers have concluded that Saturn’s biggest moon is likely hiding a global, sub-surface water ocean, 100 km beneath its surface.

Cassini has flown by Titan more than 80 times since entering Saturn’s orbit in 2004, and its observations have confirmed that, as moons go, Titan is a weird one. It’s bigger than the planet Mercury. It’s the only moon with a real atmosphere (an atmosphere denser than Earth’s, in fact). It experiences Earthlike weather, such as rain and snow. It’s home to familiar geological features like valleys, plains and deserts — and it’s the only known object besides Earth with standing bodies of liquid.

The researchers’ findings are published in the latest issue of Science

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