1. NAI Newsletter 2014-1-22

    January 22, 2014 Issue

    New in 2014, The NASA Postdoctoral Program Alumni Seminar Series
    The NASA Astrobiology Program Minority Institution Research Support Program Now Accepting Applications
    NAI Cooperative Agreement Notice Cycle 7 Update
    Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life Awards
    NASA Science Mission Directorate Seeks Public Policy Expert
    “Some Like it Cold” a New Episode from the Big Picture Science Radio Show
    NASA Space Settlement Contest

    Solving a Temperature Mystery on Extrasolar Planets
    Could Life Hitch a Ride to Saturn and Jupiter?
    Signals of Water on Extrasolar Planets
    The State of Super Earths
    Ancient Minerals on Earth and the Origin of Life

    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology
    Microbial Diversity Summer Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory
    NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration
    2014 International Geobiology Course
    The NASA Postdoctoral Program Now Accepting Applications
    2014 Santander Summer School: Habitable Environments in the Universe
    Postdoctoral Research Associate Host-Microbe Interactions/Space Biology Opportunity
    Steve Fossett Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunity in Earth and Planetary Science
    Essay Contest on Preparing for the Distant Future of Civilization


    New in 2014, the NASA Postdoctoral Program Alumni Seminar Series

    A series of seminars have been scheduled for NPP Fellows who have completed their fellowships to present their results. Please join us on the following Mondays at 11 AM Pacific. Check the NASA Astrobiology Program seminar page, https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/seminars/ for abstracts and connection instructions.

    February 3 Sara Walker
    March 3 Jennifer Glass
    April 7 Billy Brazelton and Paula Welander
    April 14 Mark Claire
    May 5 Aaron Engelhart

    The NASA Astrobiology Program Minority Institution Research Support Program Now Accepting Applications

    Application Deadline: March 17, 2014

    • Do you have a colleague at a minority serving institution (MSI) with whom you would like to work with more closely?
    • Are you a faculty member at an MSI seeking a sabbatical with a NASA Astrobiology Program investigator?
    • Do you have a current Astrobiology Program project and would like to host a faculty member from a MSI?

    The Astrobiology Program Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) program provides funded opportunities for researchers from minority serving institutions to initiate partnerships with researchers in the field of astrobiology. Past MIRS Scholars have worked with researchers at RPI, NASA Ames, NASA Goddard, the University of Houston, JPL, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Scripps Research Institute.

    Please contact Melissa Kirven-Brooks, Melissa.kirven@nasa.gov for more information.

    NAI Cooperative Agreement Notice Cycle 7 Update

    Fifty-six Step-1 proposals were submitted in response to the NAI CAN 7 solicitation. Of the 56 proposals received, 38 were “encouraged” and 18 were “discouraged.” Proposers were notified December 20, 2013. Click here for links to all the CAN 7 official documentation.

    Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life Awards

    Application Deadline: January 27, 2014

    The purpose of the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life is to advance our understanding of the processes that led to the emergence of life. The collaboration aims to support creative, innovative research on topics including the astrophysical and planetary context of the origins of life, the development of prebiotic chemistry, the assembly of the first cells, the advent of Darwinian evolution and the earliest signs of life on the young Earth. The Simons Collaboration understands that such creative and even risky research could take years to bear fruit. Through these awards, the Simons Foundation seeks to build a community dedicated to origins-of-life research collaborations.

    For the application and all the details visit: https://www.simonsfoundation.org/funding/funding-opportunities/life-sciences/collaboration-on-the-origins-of-life-investigator-award/

    NASA Science Mission Directorate Seeks Public Policy Expert

    SMD’s preferred start date is February 1 – May 1, 2014

    NASA SMD’s Strategic Integration and Management Division is looking for a Public Policy Expert to join its staff under an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) appointment. The initial IPA appointment will be for up to 2 years, with the possibility of reappointment up to a total of 6 years. The full text of this announcement, with greater detail, can be found at http://science.nasa.gov/about-us/job-opportunities/

    Questions concerning this IPA Appointment opportunity should be directed to Dr. T. Jens Feeley at jens.feeley@nasa.gov or 202.358.1714.

    “Some Like it Cold” a New Episode from the Big Picture Science Radio Show

    We all may prefer the goldilocks zone – not too hot, not too cold but most of the universe is bitterly cold. We can learn a lot about it if we’re willing to brave a temperature drop.

    Tune in to the podcast, presented on December 16th, for a lively and intelligent discussion on this icy topic. http://radio.seti.org/episodes/Some_Like_It_Cold

    NASA Space Settlement Contest

    Submission Deadline: March 1, 2014

    The NASA Ames Research Center and the National Space Society (NSS) are co-sponsoring the NASA Space Settlement Contest in which students develop space settlement designs and related materials. This contest is for all students up to 12th grade (18 years old) from anywhere in the world. The grand prize is awarded to the best entry regardless of contestant age.

    For all the contest information visit: http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/Contest/


    Solving a Temperature Mystery on Extrasolar Planets

    The sun is just below the horizon in this photo and creates an orange-red glow above the Earth’s surface, which is the troposphere, or lowest layer of the atmosphere. The tropopause is the brown line

    Astrobiologists supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute have found that a peculiar feature in the atmosphere of Earth could also be present on billions of extrasolar planets. The new findings will help in the search for habitable worlds beyond our solar system.

    On Earth, it has long been known that the atmosphere grows colder and thinner the further you get from the planet’s surface. However, in 1902, scientist Léon Teisserenc de Bort used balloons to discover a unique region of the atmosphere (at about 40,000 to 50,000 feet) where the air actually starts getting warmer again. This region is called the 'tropopause,’ and it separates the troposphere from the stratosphere.

    The tropopause is not unique to Earth. Robotic missions in our solar system have now discovered the same phenomenon on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn’s moon Titan.

    Astrobiologists at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory used physics to explain how the tropopause is formed. Their work suggests that this feature is common to planets with thick atmospheres. The findings could be used to estimate temperature and pressure at the surface of planets, helping astrobiologists understand their potential habitability.

    The paper, “Common 0.1 bar tropopause in thick atmospheres set by pressure-dependent infrared transparency,” was published online in December, 2013, in the journal Nature Geoscience (Volume 7, 12–15).

    Could Life Hitch a Ride to Saturn and Jupiter?

    Voyager 1 took photos of Jupiter and two of its moons (Io, left, and Europa) on Feb. 13, 1979. Credit: NASA/JPL

    A new study supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute suggests that the possibility of life being transferred from the inner solar system to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, although very rare, cannot be ruled out.

    The idea that life can spread through space is known as panspermia. One class of panspermia is lithopanspermia — the notion that life might travel on rocks knocked off a world’s surface. If these meteoroids encase hardy enough organisms, they could seed life on another planet or moon.

    Although lithopanspermia might seem farfetched, a number of meteorite discoveries suggest it might at least be possible. For instance, more than 100 meteorites originating from Mars have been discovered on Earth, blasted off the red planet by meteor strikes and eventually crashing here.

    “There have been previous simulations looking at transfer between Earth and Mars, but we wanted to scale the simulations up in the hopes of seeing transfer to Jupiter and Saturn,” said study lead author Rachel Worth, an astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University.

    The paper, “Seeding Life on the Moons of the Outer Planets via Lithopanspermia ,” was published in the journal Astrobiology.

    Signals of Water on Extrasolar Planets

    This illustration shows a star's light illuminating the atmosphere of a planet.

    Using the powerful­ eye of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, two teams of scientists, funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, have found faint signatures of water in the atmospheres of five distant planets.

    The presence of atmospheric water was reported previously on a few exoplanets orbiting stars beyond our solar system, but this is the first study to conclusively measure and compare the profiles and intensities of these signatures on multiple worlds.

    The five planets — WASP-17b, HD209458b, WASP-12b, WASP-19b and XO-1b — orbit nearby stars. The strengths of their water signatures varied. WASP-17b, a planet with an especially puffed-up atmosphere, and HD209458b had the strongest signals. The signatures for the other three planets, WASP-12b, WASP-19b and XO-1b, also are consistent with water.

    “We’re very confident that we see a water signature for multiple planets,” said Avi Mandell, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of an Astrophysical Journal paper, published today, describing the findings for WASP-12b, WASP-17b and WASP-19b. “This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets, for example hotter versus cooler ones.”

    The studies were part of a census of exoplanet atmospheres led by L. Drake Deming of the University of Maryland in College Park. Both teams used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to explore the details of absorption of light through the planets’ atmospheres. The observations were made in a range of infrared wavelengths where the water signature, if present, would appear. The teams compared the shapes and intensities of the absorption profiles, and the consistency of the signatures gave them confidence they saw water. The observations demonstrate Hubble’s continuing exemplary performance in exoplanet research.

    “To actually detect the atmosphere of an exoplanet is extraordinarily difficult. But we were able to pull out a very clear signal, and it is water,” said Deming, whose team reported results for HD209458b and XO-1b in a Sept. 10 paper in the same journal. Deming’s team employed a new technique with longer exposure times, which increased the sensitivity of their measurements.

    The water signals were all less pronounced than expected, and the scientists suspect this is because a layer of haze or dust blankets each of the five planets. This haze can reduce the intensity of all signals from the atmosphere in the same way fog can make colors in a photograph appear muted. At the same time, haze alters the profiles of water signals and other important molecules in a distinctive way.

    The five planets are hot Jupiters, massive worlds that orbit close to their host stars. The researchers were initially surprised that all five appeared to be hazy. But Deming and Mandell noted that other researchers are finding evidence of haze around exoplanets.

    “These studies, combined with other Hubble observations, are showing us that there are a surprisingly large number of systems for which the signal of water is either attenuated or completely absent,” said Heather Knutson of the California Institute of Technology, a co-author on Deming’s paper. “This suggests that cloudy or hazy atmospheres may in fact be rather common for hot Jupiters.”

    Hubble’s high-performance Wide Field Camera 3 is one of few capable of peering into the atmospheres of exoplanets many trillions of miles away. These exceptionally challenging studies can be done only if the planets are spotted while they are passing in front of their stars. Researchers can identify the gases in a planet’s atmosphere by determining which wavelengths of the star’s light are transmitted and which are partially absorbed.

    The State of Super Earths

    Artist's impression of Kepler-62f, a potential super-Earth in its star's habitable zone. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

    Super-Earths are planets that range from 2-10 times the mass of the Earth, and with radii up to twice as large as our planet. A number of super-Earths have been identified around distant stars, but scientists have yet to determine if any of these planets could be habitable for life as we know it.

    The first step in identifying a habitable super-Earth is to check and see if it has a stable, long-term orbit that sits within the habitable zone of its star. Astronomers have found a few planets that could fit this description. However, in order to truly determine their habitability, astrobiologists must also determine characteristics of the planets’ dynamics and climate.

    Nader Haghighipour, member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s team at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, recently published a review of the current state of research concerning the formation and evolution of super-Earths. The study discusses how our current knowledge can be applied to understanding super-Earth habitability.

    The paper, “The Formation and Dynamics of Super-Earth Planets,” was published in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Vol. 4, pages 469-495.

    Ancient Minerals on Earth and the Origin of Life

    The magnesium silicate forsterite was one of the most abundant minerals in the Hadean Eon, and it played a major role in Earth's near-surface processes. The green color of this mineral (which is also known as the semi-precious gemstone peridot, the birthstone of August) is caused by small amounts iron. The iron can react with seawater to promote chemical reactions that may have played a role in life's origins. Credit: Photo courtesy of Robert Downs, University of Arizona, Ruff Project</a></p>

	<p>The origin of life is thought to have been the result of natural processes that took advantage of the raw materials available on the early Earth. Understanding how the first organisms on Earth made use of ancient minerals has long been an important focus of astrobiology research at <span class=NASA.

    Astrobiologists supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute have shown that mineral species on the early Earth may have been different than the ones found on our planet today. The researchers concluded that no more than 420 different minerals were present at or near the Earth’s surface during the Hadean Eon. This is only 8 percent of the mineral species found in the present day.

    During Earth’s first 550 million years, there were a limited number of processes available for forming mineral species. The majority of the 420 identified in the study were created from the crystallization of molten rock, and the alteration of this rock by hot water. Today, there are more processes acting on Earth to form mineral species, thousands of which are directly related to the biosphere.

    The findings could cause scientists to re-think some origin-of-life models.

    The study, “Paleomineralogy of the Hadean Eon: A preliminary species list,” was published in the American Journal of Science.


    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology

    Application Deadline: February 3, 2014

    The American Philosophical Society and the NASA Astrobiology Institute have partnered to promote the continued exploration of the world around us through a program of research grants in support of astrobiological field studies undertaken by graduate students, postdoctoral students, and early career scientists who are affiliated with U.S. institutions.

    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology is designed for field studies in any area of astrobiology research. Grants may be used for travel and related expenses, including field equipment, up to $5,000. Applications will be reviewed by a committee that includes members of the NAI, the APS, and the wider science community as needed. Recipients will be designated as Lewis and Clark Field Scholars in Astrobiology.

    Additional information, including the application forms and instructions, is available at the APS’s Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology page: http://www.amphilsoc.org/grants/astrobiology

    Microbial Diversity Summer Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory

    Application Deadline: February 3, 2014

    Launched in 1971 by HolgerJannasch, the Microbial Diversity summer course at the Marine Biological Laboratory has trained generations of scientists from diverse backgrounds. The course will be held at MBL July 5 – August 21 and is an intense immersion experience for 20 students that lasts 6.5 weeks.

    Click here for the Online Application

    For all the information visit: http://hermes.mbl.edu/education/courses/summer/course_micro_div.html

    NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration

    Application Deadline: February 7

    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 by NASA 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/

    2014 International Geobiology Course

    Application Deadline: February 15

    The course is an intense learning experience, typically for mid-Ph.D. level graduate students and is approximately 5 weeks long. It will begin in Los Angeles, California, with a field trip north to several geobiologically relevant sites in the Mono Lake, California area, followed by laboratory time at Cal State Fullerton and the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island, California.

    You can view a short video produced last year that sums up the experience of the course and it is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38KC4QYRnJM

    We seek qualified students from any institution and any country. Application and information about the course can be found at: http://dornsife.usc.edu/wrigley/geobiology

    The NASA Postdoctoral Program Now Accepting Applications

    Application Deadline: March 1, 2014

    The program provides opportunities for Ph.D. scientists and engineers to perform research on problems largely of their own choosing, yet compatible with the research interests of the NASA Astrobiology Program. For more information see https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-postdoctoral-fellowship-program/

    2014 Santander Summer School: Habitable Environments in the Universe

    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, 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 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.

    Click here to apply online for the NAI scholarship.

    European students may apply for scholarship support provided by UIMP and the European Space Agency (ESA) through the UIMP website http://www.uimp.es at a later date.

    Scholarship support for students of other nations will be advertised as opportunities become available.

    Sponsoring Organizations

    NAINASA Astrobiology Institute
    CAB – Spanish Centro de Astrobiología
    ESA – European Space Agency
    UIMP – Universidad Internacional Menendez Pelayo

    Postdoctoral Research Associate Host-Microbe Interactions/Space Biology Opportunity

    Closing Date: March 14, 2014

    A postdoctoral research position is available beginning June 1, 2014 in the laboratory of Dr. Jamie Foster located at the University of Florida Space Life Science Lab to study the impact of space flight on beneficial symbiotic associations. Research will focus on the symbiotic association between the Hawaiian squid Euprymna scolopes and its bacterial partner Vibrio fischeri and assess how normal bacteria-induced animal development is altered in the space flight environment. Candidates must have a Ph.D. in microbiology, immunology, cellular biology, or closely related field at the time of the appointment. Expertise with molecular biology techniques is required. Experience with next-generation sequencing, transcriptomics, and associated bioinformatic programs is strongly preferred.

    The initial appointment period will be for two years at a starting salary of $40,000. Interested applicants should email a PDF file containing a cover letter describing research experience and goals, a curriculum vitae, relevant publications, and the names and addresses of three references to Jamie Foster, Department of Microbiology and Cell Science, University of Florida, Space Life Science Lab. Email address: jfoster@ufl.edu; Webpage http://jamiefosterscience.com.

    Steve Fossett Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunity in Earth and Planetary Science

    The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in Saint Louis invites applications for the Steve Fossett Postdoctoral Fellowship. The Department seeks outstanding candidates who will strengthen and complement existing areas of study, including both terrestrial and planetary geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and geobiology. Candidates will be encouraged to collaborate directly with Faculty and students within the Department, and will be invited to lead a seminar in their area of expertise. Ideal candidates will have trans-disciplinary interests, and will interact scientifically with a broad spectrum of the Department’s members. This competitive postdoc is awarded for a one-year period, which may be extended to a second year. The annual salary is $58,000 with additional research funds of $5,000 per year. Applicants should contact a potential Faculty sponsor to discuss additional arrangements.

    Please send resume, statement of research interests, and names and contact information for at least three references to:

    Fossett Fellowship Committee
    Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
    Washington University
    Rudolph Hall – Campus Box 1169
    One Brookings Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63130
    or via e-mail: Fossett_Fellowship@levee.wustl.edu

    Applications will be considered until the position is filled, but priority will be given to those received before January 15, 2014. Washington University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.

    Essay Contest on Preparing for the Distant Future of Civilization

    Application Deadline: April 22

    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.

    We invite essays from undergraduate students enrolled in a degree program at a qualified educational institution (2year or 4year college/university) between the ages of 18 to 30. Applicants should limit their essays to 1500 words or less. The deadline for applications is 22 April 2014 at 5:00 PM US Pacific time. Essays will be assessed based on scientific accuracy, originality, and writing style.

    The author of the winning essay will receive a $500 prize and will be invited to present his or her ideas in an episode of the Beer with BMSIS podcast series. The winning essay will also be considered for publication in the journal Astrobiology with a commentary by journalist and author Lee Billings. Two honorable mention prizes of $200 each will also be awarded.

    Essays will be judged by an expert panel of BMSIS research scientists as well as a group of outside judges of esteemed scientists and writers that include Kim Stanley Robinson, David Grinspoon, Lee Billings, and Michael Chorost. Essay winners will be announced on 20 July 2014.

    Submit your essay to: essaycontest@bmsis.org

    Visit http://www.bmsis.org/essaycontest/ for more details.