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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  1. Evidence of Ocean on Jupiter's Moon Ganymede

    Text based on NASA/JPL Press Release

    Add Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is bigger than two of the solar system’s nine planets, to the growing list of worlds with evidence of liquid water under the surface.

    A thick layer of melted, salty water somewhere beneath Ganymede’s icy crust would be the best way to explain some of the magnetic readings taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft during close approaches to Ganymede in May 2000 and earlier, according to one new report.

    In addition, the types of minerals on parts of Ganymede’s surface suggest that, in the past, salty water may ...

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  1. Titanic Moon: Orange Soup From Saturnian Turn

    Titan is Saturn’s biggest moon. A little larger than the planet Mercury, it is also one of the biggest moons in the solar system (only Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is larger). The astronomer Carl Sagan described Titan as, “one of the most fascinating and instructive worlds illustrating prebiological organic chemistry.” Sagan stated that, on Titan, we could see the synthesis of complex organic molecules happening right before our eyes.

    That’s because the orange haze that completely surrounds Titan is an organic chemistry experiment in action. Cosmic rays, ultraviolet light from the sun, and charged particles trapped by Saturn’s magnetic field ...

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  1. Pyruving the Origin of Life

    By simulating the conditions of hydrothermal vents in the lab, researchers at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) have created pyruvic acid, an organic chemical vital for cellular metabolism. CIW is one of eleven Lead Teams participating in the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

    Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1977. Similar to geysers like Yellowstone Park’s Old Faithful, these hot underwater vents spew out mixtures of chemicals and nutrients for bacteria while maintaining near-volcanic heat temperatures. With the sampling of these vents, scientists have also discovered that life thrives there, despite the elevated temperatures and extremely ...

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  1. Evidence of Martian Land of Lakes Discovered

    Text based on NASA/JPL Press Release

    In what ultimately may be their most significant discovery yet, Mars scientists say high-resolution pictures showing layers of sedimentary rock paint a portrait of an ancient Mars that long ago may have featured numerous lakes and shallow seas.

    “We see distinct, thick layers of rock within craters and other depressions for which a number of lines of evidence indicate that they may have formed in lakes or shallow seas. We have never before had this type of irrefutable evidence that sedimentary rocks are widespread on Mars,” said Dr. Michael Malin, principal investigator ...

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  1. New Images Suggest Present-Day Source of Liquid Water on Mars

    Text based on NASA/JPL Press Release

    In what could turn out to be a landmark discovery in the history of Mars exploration, imaging scientists using data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft have observed features that suggest there may be current sources of liquid water at or near the surface of the red planet.

    The images show the smallest features ever observed from martian orbit — the size of an SUV. NASA scientists compare the features to those left by flash floods on Earth.

    “We see features that look like gullies formed by flowing water and the deposits ...

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  1. The Case of the Missing Water

    Mars used to be a very wet place. A host of clues remain from that earlier time, indications that Mars was perhaps once host to great rivers, lakes and perhaps even an ocean. But the clues are contradictory. They don’t fit together in a coherent whole. Little wonder, then, that the fate of water on Mars is such a hotly debated topic.

    The reason for the intense interest on water on Mars is simple: Without water, there can be no life as we know it. If it has been 3.5 billion years since liquid water was present on Mars ...

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  1. Back to the Surface: NASA’s 2003 Mission to Mars

    What role did liquid water play in shaping the surface of Mars? The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) currently in orbit around the Red Planet has provided strong visual evidence that water once flowed on Mars, cutting deep channels, pooling in lakes, perhaps even filling the Northern third of Mars with a vast ocean. But probing the question more deeply requires landing and taking a look around.

    That is precisely what NASA hopes to do in 2003. The space agency recently announced plans to launch two rovers, one in May and the other in June of 2003. The two will land ...

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  1. NASA Astrobiology Architect, Dr. Gerald Soffen, Remembered

    NASA Scientist Dr. Gerald Soffen, who led the Viking science team that performed the first experiments on the surface of the planet Mars and a guiding force in NASA’s effort to search for life in the Universe, died Nov. 22 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC. He was 74.

    A close advisor to NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, Soffen helped shape NASA’s Astrobiology program, the study of life in the Universe. Soffen also was instrumental in the

    establishment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, a virtual organization comprising NASA Centers, universities and research organizations dedicated to studying ...

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  1. Leonid Meteors Yield Rich Astrobiology Research Results

    Text based on a NASA/Ames Press Release

    A team of NASA researchers and their collaborators report their findings from last year’s Leonid meteor storm in a special issue of the journal “Earth, Moon and Planets.”

    The scientists – all members of the NASA and U.S. Air Force-sponsored Leonid Multi-Instrument Aircraft Campaign – discussed their results in a series of astrobiology-related papers in the peer-reviewed journal. While their findings covered a range of areas, the key results reported have implications for the existence and survival of life’s precursors in comet materials that reach Earth.

    “Last year’s Leonid meteor ...

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  1. Life Under Bombardment

    No-one knows when life first established a firm foothold on Earth. Ask around in the scientific community, though, and you’ll probably hear that the surface of early Earth, before about 3.8 billion years ago, was too hostile an environment for even a lowly microbe to set up shop.

    The main problem, as the conventional argument goes, was that between around 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, Earth was constantly being bombarded by comets and asteroids. The disastrous effects of these impacts would have rendered the Earth’s surface uninhabitable.

    Not necessarily so, say a team of astrobiologists who ...

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  1. Mars Lakes

    Nathalie Cabrol, who has spent many long hours poring over images of Mars taken from orbiting spacecraft, believes those images contain convincing evidence that lakes were present on Mars in the recent past.

    “Recent” requires some definition when you’re talking to geologists. In this case, it means some time in the past half a billion years or so, give or take a couple hundred million. There are no lakes present on the Martian surface today.

    Cabrol, a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and a principal investigator with the SETI Institute, works at NASA’s Ames Research Center in ...

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