1. A Visit to Cupid for Valentine's Day

    Around Valentine’s Day this year, the hearts of many scientists will beat a little faster.

    That’s because on February 12, a spacecraft will land on an asteroid for the very first time.

    For the past year, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker spacecraft has been orbiting 433 Eros, a large asteroid located about 176 million kilometers (109 million miles) from Earth. Eros is the Greek name for Cupid, the familiar bringer of love from classical mythology.

    The spacecraft has relayed thousands of photographs of the asteroid back to Earth, giving scientists the opportunity to pick the perfect landing spot ...

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  1. Seeing Mars Through a Test Tube

    By recreating the Martian surface in the laboratory, NASA scientists may have begun to answer two questions that have been plaguing scientists for years: why the Martian surface is so red, and why organic life has not yet been found there.

    One answer, say the scientists, could be an important reactive oxygen molecule, called a superoxide anion, or negatively charged oxygen (O2-).

    To test this hypothesis requires some way to test for hostile conditions in a laboratory. The researchers therefore first had to replicate a harsh Martian environment, but in a controlled recipe that they could sample reliably and easily ...

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  1. Looking for Life, Astrobiologists Dive Deep

    A team of interdisciplinary astrobiologists from NASA and other agencies is homing in on recognizing the microbial biosignatures for life, making it easier someday to identify life on other planets.

    A scientific paper analyzing the team’s research results, titled “Modern Freshwater Microbialite Analogues for Ancient Dendritic Reef Structures,” was published in the journal Nature on October 5. The paper focuses on the study of mounded microbialite deposits – layers of living and non-living organisms – found at Pavilion Lake in Canada.

    Microbialites are organic sedimentary mineral deposits covered by a thin layer of microbes that become entombed in the ...

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  1. Jovian Moons

    Our moon, while celebrated in song and literature for its beauty, does not harbor life. With no atmosphere and little known water, conditions on our moon are not adequate to support life as we understand it. There are, however, a total of 61 moons orbiting the 9 planets in our solar system and some of them have atmospheres, organic molecules, water, or heat energy – the conditions necessary for life to exist.

    The larger moons of Jupiter, for instance, have some of the qualities that would make life possible. These moons – Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede – are called ...

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  1. Scientists Find Clues That Life Began in Deep Space

    Text based on a NASA Ames Research Center press release

    Duplicating the harsh conditions of cold interstellar space in their laboratory, NASA scientists have created primitive cells that mimic the membranous structures found in all living things. These chemical compounds may have played a part in the origin of life.

    This breakthrough by scientists at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is important because some scientists believe that the delivery – by comets, meteorites and interplanetary dust – of similar organic compounds born in interstellar space might have “kick-started” life on Earth.

    “Scientists believe the molecules needed to ...

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  1. Without Jupiter, Home Alone

    To a biologist, the ingredients needed to form life include water, heat and organic chemicals. But some in the astrophysics and astronomy community argue that life, at least advanced life, may require an additional component: a Jupiter-sized planet in the solar neighborhood.

    “A long-period Jupiter may be a prerequisite for advanced life,” said Dr. Alan Boss, a researcher in planetary formation. Boss, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

    In our own solar system, Jupiter, with its enormous gravitational field, plays an important protective role. By deflecting comets and ...

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  1. Mars Ocean Hypothesis Hits the Shore

    To test the hypothesis that oceans once covered much of the northern hemisphere of Mars, scientists at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) of San Diego, CA, have used high resolution images of Mars taken with the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on Mars Global Surveyor.

    “The ocean hypothesis is very important, because the existence of large bodies of liquid water in the Martian past would have had a tremendous impact on ancient Martian climate and implications for the search for evidence of past life on the planet,” said Dr. Kenneth Edgett, a staff scientist at MSSS.

    Features in earlier Mars ...

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  1. The Greening of the Red Planet

    Although Mars may once have been warm and wet, the red planet today is a frozen wasteland. Most scientists agree that it’s highly unlikely that any living creature, even a microbe, could survive for long on the very surface of the planet.

    When the first humans travel to Mars to explore the red planet up close, they will have to grow their food in airtight, heated greenhouses. The Martian atmosphere is far too cold and dry for edible plants to grow in the open air. But if humans ever hope to establish long-term colonies on their planetary neighbor, they will ...

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  1. Thawing Mars

    To say that Mars is a chilly place is a bit of an understatement. The mean annual temperature on the red planet is minus 55 degrees Celsius. It is far too cold for human habitation. Which explains why those who believe that humanity one day will establish colonies on Mars take very seriously the problem of how to warm the planet up.

    Humans won’t be building thriving communities on Mars any time soon. But that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to figure out how the task of turning up the Martian thermostat might be accomplished. At a recent NASA-sponsored ...

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  1. Astrobiologists Find Evidence of Early Life on Land

    Text based on a NASA/Ames press release.

    Scientists with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) have discovered fossilized remnants of microbial mats that developed on land between 2.6 billion and 2.7 billion years ago in the Eastern Transvaal district of South Africa.

    This significant discovery presents the strongest evidence to date that life on land occurred at a much earlier stage in Earth’s history than was previously believed by most scientists. It also suggests that an ozone shield and an oxygen-rich atmosphere existed on Earth 2.6 billion years ago, both necessary conditions for life on land to ...

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  1. The Dance of the Giant Planets

    (Text based on a NASA/Ames press release.)

    A team of planet hunters January 9th announced a discovery that will help researchers better understand planet migration and how planets’ gravitational pulls influence each other. The discovery was announced at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego.

    The planet sleuths from the University of California at Berkeley, NASA and other institutions discovered the planetary pair locked in what appears to be “resonant” orbits, moving in synch around the star with orbital periods of 60 and 30 days. Because of the 2-to-1 ratio, the inner planet goes around the star twice ...

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  1. Terrestrial Powerhouses

    As the electric spark important for all cellular life, one remarkable protein, among others — called bacteriorhodopsin— converts light into metabolic energy. This process has always been something of a mystery, but after 30 years of investigations this protein has finally revealed some of its secrets. As reported in the August 10 issue of Nature, three pieces of this biological puzzle are now starting to fit together.

    Bacteriorhodopsin is an intensely purple-colored protein found in microbes that live in extreme environments such as salt marshes and salt lakes. This light-sensitive protein provides chemical energy to these microbes—sometimes called Halobacteria. It ...

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  1. Kepler Planet-Finding Mission Selected for Discovery Program

    NASA has selected for further study a proposal from Ames Research Center to search for Earth-size planets around stars beyond our solar system.

    The Kepler mission, which will use a space telescope specifically designed to search for habitable planets, is one of three candidates for NASA’s next Discovery Program mission. If selected, Kepler will be launched in 2005.

    “The Kepler mission will, for the first time, enable humans to search our galaxy for Earth-size or even smaller planets,” said principal investigator William Borucki of Ames. The mission could find habitable planets in Earth-like orbits within 4 years of ...

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  1. Martian Micromagnets

    The case for ancient life on Mars looks better than ever after scientists announced last week that they had discovered magnetic crystals inside a Martian meteorite — crystals that, here on Earth, are produced only by microscopic life forms.

    The magnetic compound, called magnetite or Fe3O4, is common enough on our planet. It is present, for example, in household video and audio tapes. But only certain types of terrestrial bacteria, which can assemble the crystals atom by atom, produce magnetite structures that are chemically pure and free from defects.

    Scientists have found just such crystals deep inside the Allan Hills ...

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  1. More Distant Planets Discovered

    Imagine a single month in which eight new worlds outside our solar system could be discovered. This summer two separate findings were announced by the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory and by the European Southern Observatory, thus raising to over 50 the number of planetary candidates to probe in future studies.

    Astronomers at the McDonald Observatory discovered a planet orbiting the star epsilon Eridani, a solar system only 10.5 light-years away from Earth. Relatively speaking, this star is a close neighbor, being the tenth closest star to our Sun. Epsilon Eridani is the fifth brightest star in ...

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