Astrobiotechnology Focus Group
Currently Inactive


Gregory Bearman, Co-Chair
Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
California Institute of Technology

Bruce Jakosky, Co-Chair
University of Colorado

Andrew Steele, Co-Chair
Carnegie Institution of Washington

NASA’s plans for exploration of the solar system increasingly emphasize the search for signatures of extraterrestrial life. To accomplish this goal will require advances in in-situ science capabilities, including landed instruments to acquire samples, prepare them, and analyze their physical and chemical properties. Instrument technologies for in situ planetary exploration are also relevant to the study of extreme environments on Earth such as deep-sea vents, high altitude environments and Arctic/Antarctic locations. Study of extreme environments on earth will help in the definition of origin of life issues, aid evaluation of strategies for characterizing habitable zones on other worlds, and characterization of the envelope of terrestrial life as a guide to detecting life elsewhere.

To address these exploration challenges, the NAI has established the Astrobiotechnology Focus Group . The purpose of this Focus Group is identify technology gaps for post Mars Science Laboratory missions and to transition methodologies and technologies from earth-based experiments to other planets, highlighting instrument technologies and sample handling. Participation from areas such as analytical chemistry, biomedical instruments and methods, down-hole sensing, ultra-sensitive clinical instruments, biology, MEMS ( Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems) and micro-fluidics are key to this effort.

In recent years, astrobiologists have proposed numerous biosignatures of extraterrestrial life, including chirality, elemental, chemical and isotopic differentiation, non-equilibrium redox products and ion concentrations, microscopic structures, and the presence of prebiotic and biotic molecules such as amino acids, long chain hydrocarbons and other complex biomolecules. Instrumentation to detect these signatures has tended to come from the worlds of physics and chemistry as well as from biology: mass spectrometers, atomic force microscopes, Raman spectrometers and capillary electrophoresis systems are all detection technologies that have been either proposed or selected for flight missions

Some of the relevant technology areas are:

  • Biologically-inspired devices, e.g., ion-pore channel
  • Detectors that incorporate receptor specificity
  • Ultra-sensitive clinical technologies and instruments for detection of biological material on spacecraft and fossil biological molecules
  • Analytical chemistry and instruments
  • MEMS devices, e.g., micro-machined capillary
  • Electrophoresis systems/microfluidics
  • Micro-array technology to create multiple-analyte sensors
  • MEMS devices that focus on mechanical motion
  • Combinatorial chemistry and chip technology to constrain possible extraterrestrial biochemistries
  • Microphotonics for detectors, integrated systems
  • Chem/bio warfare agent detectors
  • Downhole sensing, oil well logging
  • Biomedical instruments and methods
  • Sampling techniques from extreme environments
  • Deep-sea studies
  • Haptic actuators
First Year Activities

The NAI Focus group is sponsoring two major events in its first year to address issues central to our charter:

The first workshop will focus on science and technology development for the Mars mission to follow on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) ’09 mission. Given the necessity of both defining the science and developing the pertinent instruments, now is the right time to begin this effort. We are sponsoring a cross-disciplinary workshop to bring together both industry and academia in a setting geared towards identifying science and technology needs and capabilities on both sides of the aisle. This will be an open workshop, and we will coordinate with and include participants and managers from the following programs:

  • Mars Instrument Development Project (MIDP)
  • Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program (PIDDP)
  • Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID)
  • NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP)

We will also invite those interested in instrument development but who are not funded from these programs and scientists who are interested in defining the directions of the follow-on missions. The workshop is scheduled for September 8-10 in Washington DC. The website for the workshop can be found at

The second event will address another major theme of the Focus Group, namely the interaction between those developing bench top proof-of-concept experiments and those responsible for engineering flight instruments starting from state-of-the-art instrumentation from biotechnology. Even with the incorporation of MEMS and microelectronics, these instruments can consume significant resources (1 kg, 20 watts, 1000 cm3 ). We hope to adopt instruments from other commercial sources such as compact analytical instruments and point of care sensors for medical care. All of these will require modifications for a space environment; this workshop will help scientists utilizing these technologies bridge that gap. The title conveys the theme— “How to Build a Flight Instrument “. We will use experienced engineers and instrument developers from JPL, industry and university groups to give tutorials on instrument design, testing and fabrication. One of the major objectives is to inject as much realism as possible early on into the development phase. Early considerations of mechanical requirements for the launch shock and vibration envelop, for example, can prevent painful changes later in the development cycle.