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March 17th Press Conference on Major Discovery at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation, HSCFSA

"Researchers from the BICEP2 collaboration today announced the first direct evidence for this cosmic inflation. Their data also represent the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been described as the "first tremors of the Big Bang." Finally, the data confirm a deep connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity."

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) will host a press conference at 12:00 noon EDT (16:00 UTC) on Monday, March 17th, to announce a major discovery.

Video of the press conference will be streamed live beginning at 11:55 a.m. EDT from the link at http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/news_conferences.html

Reporters watching remotely can ask questions of the participants by sending an e-mail to pubaffairs@cfa.harvard.edu. The e-mail should include the reporter’s name and affiliation.

The press conference will take place at Phillips Auditorium, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, Mass. Reporters who want to attend in person should contact Christine Pulliam at cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu or +1 617-495-7463. If you will need a parking pass, please include your license plate number.

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.

Essay Contest on Preparing for the Distant Future of Civilization

http://www.bmsis.org/essaycontest/

Undergrads:

The activities of our global civilization are now intertwined with the evolution of the Earth system. Human civilization will face many challenges as it adapts to a rapidly changing world, and the result of many critical decisions today will have a lasting impact on generations to come. Predicting the direction of these future changes will require an understanding of the very longterm consequences of humanity’s current actions on our planet. As we step deeper into the “anthropocene”, an era defined by the global impact of human activities, and continue to improve our technology, our success as a civilization will depend on our ability to prepare for an uncertain future.

The Blue Marble Space Institute of Science invites participants to address this theme by responding to the question: In the next 100 years, how can human civilization prepare for the longterm changes to the Earth system that will occur over the coming millennium? The purpose of the essay contest is to stimulate creative thinking relating to space exploration and global issues by exploring how changes in the Earth system will affect humanity’s future.

Application deadline: April 22

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.

sagansense:

Virgin Galactic ‘not much of a space flight’, says astronaut Chris Hadfield

High-profile Canadian praises concept but says space tourists are ‘just going to go up and fall back down again’

Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut whose tweeted photos, videos and rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity brought him global fame during a stint aboard the International Space Station, has questioned what kind of experience future space tourists will have with Virgin Galactic, saying they are “just going to go up and fall back down again”.

The 54-year-old, who spent five months commanding the ISS this year, also said the nature of space travel meant that at some point it appeared inevitable that a Virgin Galactic craft would crash.

Hadfield nonetheless praises the Virgin Galactic concept, under which passengers who have booked seats with a $250,000 deposit will fly to 68 miles above Earth and experience zero gravity. He says the Virgin chief, Richard Branson, has been in touch with him for advice.

Hadfield, whose recording of the Bowie song, with a video shot inside the ISS, has been watched more than 18m times on YouTube, said sign-ups for Virgin Galactic, such as Paris Hilton, might be disappointed if they expect an experience on the lines of the space blockbuster Gravity.

"I’m all for the idea. I commend him for it. But it’s not much of a space flight. I’m not sure she knows what she’s paying for. She may think she’s going to … see the universe and stars whipping by. None of that’s happening. They’re just going to go up and fall back down again. They’ll get a few minutes of weightlessness, and they’ll see the black of the universe. And they’ll see the curve of the Earth and the horizon, because they’ll be above the air. But whether that’ll be enough for the quarter-million-dollar price tag? I don’t know…eventually they’ll crash one. Because it’s hard. They’re discovering how hard. They wanted to fly years ago and faced a lot of obstacles, but he’s a brave entrepreneur and I hope he succeeds. The more people who can see the world this way, the better off we are."

In his new memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, Hadfield argues that space travel carries inherent risks, not least because of the relative lack of testing of any spacecraft. He writes:

"No aeroplane you’ve ever gotten into had less than thousands of flights before they took their first passenger. Because vehicles are unsafe at first. We only flew the [space] shuttle 135 times total. Every flight was a radical test flight. With really high stakes."

In a Guardian interview, Hadfield also explains the complexities of life aboard the ISS, where the isolation and tiny number of inhabitants means everyone must be multi-talented:

"We are our own town. Every single skill that exists in a town, we have to have on board. There are six of us, then three leave and are replaced by another three. But if they have a problem on the way up, then there’s three of you. So every trio that goes up has to have all the skills necessary for the entire time."

A spokeswoman for Virgin Galactic described Hadfield as “a good friend and supporter”, and said there was a huge difference between his long space flights and those planned for paying passengers.

She said: "We are expecting to fly Richard and his children next year in the world’s most tested spacecraft and have emphasised since the start that commercial service will only commence once we fully understand and can satisfactorily manage the risks involved. There are no shortcuts."

Source: guardian

thenewenlightenmentage:

Number of Confirmed Alien Planets Nears 1,000

Just two decades after discovering the first world beyond our solar system, astronomers are closing in on alien planet No. 1,000.

Four of the five main databases that catalog the discoveries of exoplanets  now list more than 900 confirmed alien worlds, and two of them peg the tally at 986 as of today (Sept. 26). So the 1,000th exoplanet may be announced in a matter of days or weeks, depending on which list you prefer.

That’s a lot of progress since 1992, when researchers detected two planets orbiting a rotating neutron star, or pulsar, about 1,000 light-years from Earth. Confirmation of the first alien world circling a “normal” star like our sun did not come until 1995.

Continue Reading

NASA Curiosity Rover Detects No Methane on Mars - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This was a bit sad for astrobiology (I think a lot of us were hoping to find subsurface methanogens on Mars), but in the end I count it as a win, because it demonstrates that science will find the truth, and not just what everyone wants to hear. It also shows us that remote sensing can only tell you so much; surface- (or orbit-) based observations are really important. Unfortunately, remote sensing is all we have to go on at the moment for most exoplanets, but maybe now we can find out what went wrong in the original study, and improve our detection methods.

Life on Earth originally came from Mars, new study suggests | ExtremeTech

OK, I’m only going to say a few things about this:

1. This was the first report of this that I found (I wasn’t at the conference). I’m going to post a slightly more descriptive link from paleblublog (this one isn’t too bad, but the contractions made me cringe).

2. Steve Benner knows his shit. He is a very talented chemist. He also thinks outside the box pretty regularly, so it’s not surprising to hear him propose this. He’s also been kind of obsessed with boron for a long time, but not without reason.

heythereuniverse:

Manned Missions to Mars: Is the Moon Really a Stepping Stone? | Space.com

The moon may be more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone on humanity’s path to the Red Planet, one prominent researcher says.

The perceived need to develop lunar infrastructure and resources first could push a manned Mars mission far off into the future, said Harley Thronson, senior scientist for advanced concepts in the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

And if putting boots on the Red Planet in the next few decades is indeed the top priority of the international human spaceflight community, then making a prolonged stopover on the moon beforehand runs counter to the spirit and history of exploration, he added.

[Read more]

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

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