1. NAI Newsletter 2014-5-5

    May 5, 2014 Issue






    NAI Interim Director: Announcement

    Due to unexpected personal conflicts, Dr. Michael Meyer has declined the position of NAI’s Interim Director. Dr. Meyer explains, “Unfortunately, the requirements levied to resolve a conflict-of-interest were unacceptable. I am disappointed that I am unable to accept the Interim Director position with NAI – I very much looked forward to re-engaging with the great work being done at the NAI.” Dr. Steve Zornetzer, Associate Director for Research and Technology at Ames Research Center, indicated that the Center will consider appointing another Interim Director for NAI while re-establishing the search for a distinguished scientific leader for the permanent Director’s position.

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    FameLab USA: We Have a Winner!

    Please join us in congratulating Lyl Tomlinson from SUNY Stony Brook on winning the FameLab USA National Competition, co-sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

    Lyl joins the winners of FameLab competitions from 23 other countries all over the world. He will represent the United States in the FameLab International Final on June 5th at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK.

    Watch the archived webcast of the Final!

    At six regional heats throughout the US over the past 18 months, nearly 100 early career scientists from across the US have participated in FameLab USA. They each bravely took the stage for three PowerPoint-free minutes each, using only their words and wits to impress their peers, the judges, and the public. The science they’ve covered was broad, reaching from color-blindness to asteroids, from nudibranchs to black holes.

    On Saturday, April 5th, the top eleven converged in Washington, DC where they went head-to-head in one final competition to determine who will be the US National FameLab champion. Alli Coffin from Washington State University was the audience favorite!

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    Upcoming Astrobiology Seminars

    There are two University of Washington Seminars in May. On May 6, Microbial Systems: Nexus Roles for Astrobiology, Energy and Space will be presented by Lee Prufert-Bebout, NASA Ames Research Center. On May 13, Remote Sensing of Extrasolar Planets will be presented by Michael Line, University of California, Santa Cruz. The University of Washington seminar series is hosted by the NAI Virtual Planetary Lab (VPL) team live from the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

    Please join us at 3 PM Pacific for the UW Seminars on the dates above. For abstracts and connection instructions, please visit the NASA Astrobiology Program seminar page at https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/seminars/ .

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    Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) 2014 selections

    The Astrobiology Program has selected 4 faculty members from minority serving institutions to conduct research in astrobiology labs as part of the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) program during 2014. The selections are:

    • Dr. Peter Abanda, Mid-South Community College, Host – Leslie Prufert-Bebout, NASA Ames Research Center, “Roles of Microbes in Metal Binding and Uptake in Complex Microbial Systems”.
    • Dr. Marcus Alfred, Howard University, Host – Paul Butler, Carnegie Institution of Washington, “Searching for Terrestrial Worlds Around Nearby Stars”.
    • Dr. Jean-Marie Dimandja, Spelman College, Host – George Cooper, NASA Ames Research Center, “Development of a Multi-Dimentional Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry Method for the Analysis of Extractable Organics in Meteorites”.
    • Dr. James Wachira, Morgan State University, Host – George Fox, University of Houston, “Modeling the Tertiary Structure of the Ribosomal Peptidyl Transferase Center (PTC)”.

    More information on the MIRS program can be found at https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-minority-institution-research-support-mirs-program/

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    Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award

    Selections have been made for the spring 2014 Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award, in which undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior scientists are provided research-related travel support to circulate amongst astrobiology laboratories. For more information, see http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-early-career-collaboration-award/

    The selections are:

    Matthieu Galvez, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, will work with Craig Manning at UCLA, “Testing for the Additivity of Mixed Ligand Solutions on Mineral Solubilities”.

    Pedro Montalvo Jimenez, of the University of Puerto Rico, will work with John Valley at the University of Wisconsin on “Identification of Detrital Shocked Minerals”.

    Johanna Teske, from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, will travel to the Mauna Kea Observatory to work with Steve Howell (NASA ARC), to the Lowell Observatory to work with Evgenya Shkolnik and to the University of California, Santa Cruz to work with Jonathan Fortney, in support of her project, “Modeling exoplanet atmospheres/stellar composition”.

    Xiangli Wang, from Yale University who will work with Mukul Sharma at Dartmouth College, examining “Time constraints on the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis”.

    Dylan Wilmeth, from the University of Southern California, will visit Nicolas Beukes at the University of Johannesburg, “Investigating local oxygenation of a Neoarchean lake environment, South Africa”.

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    Smart Sparrow and Arizona State University to Launch HabWorlds Beyond Online Science Course

    Smart Sparrow, in collaboration with ASU Online, announced the launch of a new type of online course HabWorlds Beyond a platform that lets educators create rich, interactive and adaptive learning experiences. HabWorlds Beyond teaches students about space exploration, climate science, and the search for life on other planets. Centered on one of the most profound questions in science – does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? HabWorlds Beyond uses game-like simulations to expose students to the thought processes and practice of science in a fun and engaging way.

    HabWorlds Beyond stems from Habitable Worlds – ASU Online’s successful adaptive course that was developed over three years of collaboration between the education technology company Smart Sparrow, ASU Online , and Professor Ariel Anbar of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration . Beginning in the fall of 2014, college professors from any university will be able to teach HabWorlds Beyond in their classrooms, using the Smart Sparrow platform.

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    Planetary Science Division Seeks Volunteer Reviewers

    To increase the pool of un-conflicted reviewers, the Planetary Science Division is seeking subject matter experts to serve as mail-in reviewers of proposals and/or in-person reviewers to engage in discussions at a face-to-face panel meeting. New researchers (including post-doctoral fellows) are welcome to apply as they provide fresh insight from people close to the most current research. Follow the links below to the volunteer review forms and select the fields you consider yourself to be a subject matter expert in. If your skills match our needs for this review NASA, will contact you to discuss scheduling.

    Currently seeking reviewers for:

    ROSES 2014 E.3 The Exoplanet Research Program
    ROSES 2014 C.2 Emerging Worlds
    ROSES 2014 C.6 Solar System Observations

    For more information visit: http://science.nasa.gov/researchers/volunteer-review-panels/

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    Europa Community Announcements

    Solicitation Number: NNH14ZDA007L

    The NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) intends to release three (3) announcements of interest to the Planetary Science community. These opportunities are part of NASA’s continuing efforts to assess the scientific merits and technical feasibility of Europa mission concepts that cost-effectively implement the science objectives of the latest Planetary Science Decadal Survey.

    The first announcement was released April 28, 2014 – Request for Information: NNH14ZDA008L (Europa Mission Concepts Costing Less than $1 Billion). The Request for Information (RFI) is soliciting brief descriptions of mission concepts that address Decadal Survey science objectives for Europa via missions costing less than $1B (FY 2015 dollars, phases A-E, excluding launch vehicle). Upon review of the RFI responses, NASA may solicit and award funds for further study of credible concepts that are judged to be technically feasible, to fit within the $1B cost cap, and to provide adequate science return. Responses will be due approximately 30 days after the release of the RFI. All responses submitted to this RFI must be submitted in electronic form via NSPIRES, the NASA online announcement data management system, located at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/.

    SMD intends to release in July 2014 a Program Element Appendix (PEA) of the Stand Alone Missions of Opportunity Notice (SALMON-2) for Europa instrument science investigations. The second announcement, forecasted here for the end of April 2014, will be a preview Community Announcement describing the planned key parameters of the PEA. No draft PEA will be released; the Community Announcement is intended to convey similar information of interest to potential proposers.

    The time frame for these three announcements is intended to be:

    Release of RFI: April 28, 2014
    Release of PEA Community Announcement: Late April 2014 (target)
    Release of final PEA: July 2014 (target)
    PEA Preproposal conference: ~3 weeks after final PEA release
    PEA Proposals due: 90 days after PEA release
    Selection for competitive Phase A studies: April 2015 (target)
    Concept study reports due: December 2015 (target)
    Down-selection: April 2016 (target)

    Further information will be posted on the Europa Program Acquisition Page at http://soma.larc.nasa.gov/europa/ as it becomes available. Questions may be addressed to Dr. Curt Niebur, Europa Program Scientist, Science Mission Directorate, NASA, Washington, DC 20546; Tel.: (202) 358-0390; Email: curt.niebur@nasa.gov.

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    Earth’s Crust Younger Than Moon-Forming Impact

    A zircon from the Jack Hills in Western Australia was claimed to be 4.4 billion years old. The grain is probably less than 100 million years younger than the Earth–Moon system and is likely to be a re A zircon from the Jack Hills in Western Australia was claimed to be 4.4 billion years old. The grain is probably less than 100 million years younger than the Earth–Moon system and is likely to be a remnant of the oldest continental crust. Image Credit: John Valley, Univ. Wisconsin

    The age of the Earth’s crust is contentious, and geologic materials available for analysis are few and far between. In a new study in Nature Geoscience, NAI-funded astrobiologists have mapped the distribution of radiogenic isotopes within an ancient zircon from the Jack Hills in Western Australia (a site with some of Earth’s oldest rocks). Their results confirm that Earth’s oldest known continental crust formed just after the Earth–Moon system.

    The oxygen isotope ratios from within such zircons have been used to infer when the conditions habitable to life were established.

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    Odd Tilts Could Make More Worlds Habitable

    Tilted orbits might make some planets wobble like a top that's almost done spinning, an effect that could maintain liquid water on the surface. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Tilted orbits might make some planets wobble like a top that's almost done spinning, an effect that could maintain liquid water on the surface. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

    Pivoting planets that lean one way and then change orientation within a short geological time period might be surprisingly habitable, according to new modeling by NASA and university scientists affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

    The climate effects generated on these wobbling worlds could prevent them from turning into glacier-covered ice lockers, even if those planets are somewhat far from their stars. And with some water remaining liquid on the surface long-term, such planets could maintain favorable conditions for life. Read more

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    The Seafloor Electric

    Michael Russell and Laurie Barge of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are pictured in their Icy Worlds laboratory, where they mimic the conditions of Earth billions of years ago, att Michael Russell and Laurie Barge of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are pictured in their Icy Worlds laboratory, where they mimic the conditions of Earth billions of years ago, attempting to answer the question of how life first arose.

    Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed into slime molds, frogs, elephants, humans and the rest of our planet’s living kingdoms. How did it all begin?

    A new study from researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the Icy Worlds team at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., describes how electrical energy naturally produced at the sea floor might have given rise to life. While the scientists had already proposed this hypothesis — called “submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life” — the new report assembles decades of field, laboratory and theoretical research into a grand, unified picture. Read more

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    Mars in a Box

    Technical drawing of the MARTE (left). MARTE simulation chamber (right). Credits: Rev. Sci. Instrum. 85, 035111 (2014) (left image) and Martín-Gago/ICMM (right image) Technical drawing of the MARTE (left). MARTE simulation chamber (right). Credits: Rev. Sci. Instrum. 85, 035111 (2014) (left image) and Martín-Gago/ICMM (right image)

    Researchers at the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) in Madrid, Spain, have developed a Mars simulator that replicates almost all of the environmental variables on the red planet that pose a challenge for exploration equipment.

    MARTE is a modular simulation chamber, and its flexible design allows scientists to re-configure the chamber to accommodate equipment of different sizes and shapes. The environment inside MARTE is also tuneable, allowing researchers to adjust factors like pressure, temperature and atmospheric composition. Unlike previous Mars environment chambers, MARTE features a never-before-seen martian dust simulator.

    MARTE has already been used to test instruments for missions that are helping astrobiologists understand life’s potential (both past and present) on Mars. One of MARTE’s first tasks was testing designs for Curiosity’s Air Temperature Sensors. Soon, the Temperature and Wind meteorological station for InSight will but put through its paces inside MARTE. Further down the road, MARTE could be testing instruments for the Mars 2020 Mission, including the proposed Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer and Sign of Life Detector (SOLID).

    The team behind MARTE recently published details of the simulator in the journal Review of Scientific Instruments.

    The Centro de Astrobiología is an International Partner of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

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    Microbial Innovation Causes the End-Permian Extinction

    MIT professor of geophysics Daniel Rothman stands next to part of the Xiakou formation in China. His right hand rests on the layer that marks the time of the end-Permian mass extinction event. MIT professor of geophysics Daniel Rothman stands next to part of the Xiakou formation in China. His right hand rests on the layer that marks the time of the end-Permian mass extinction event.

    Evidence left at the crime scene is abundant and global: Fossil remains show that sometime around 252 million years ago, about 90 percent of all species on Earth were suddenly wiped out — by far the largest of this planet’s five known mass extinctions. But pinpointing the culprit has been difficult, and controversial.

    Now, a team of NAI-funded researchers at MIT may have found enough evidence to convict the guilty parties — but you’ll need a microscope to see the killers. Read more

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    Atmospheric Pressure on Exoplanets

    NAI-funded astrobiologists at the University of Washington have developed a new method of gauging the atmospheric pressure of exoplanets, or worlds beyond the solar system, by looking for a certain type of molecule.

    And if there is life out in space, scientists may one day use this same technique to detect its biosignature — the telltale chemical signs of its presence — in the atmosphere of an alien world.

    Understanding atmospheric pressure is key to knowing if conditions at the surface of a terrestrial, or rocky, exoplanet might allow liquid water, thus giving life a chance. Read more

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    Icy Debris Around Nearby Star Suggests “Shepherd” Planet

    This artist's concept illustrates the preferred model for explaining ALMA observations of Beta Pictoris. At the outer fringes of the system, the gravitational influence of a hypothetical giant planet This artist's concept illustrates the preferred model for explaining ALMA observations of Beta Pictoris. At the outer fringes of the system, the gravitational influence of a hypothetical giant planet (bottom left) captures comets into a dense, massive swarm (right) where frequent collisions occur. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/F. Reddy

    An international team of astronomers led by NAI-funded astrobiologists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center exploring the disk of gas and dust around a nearby star have uncovered a compact cloud of poisonous gas formed by ongoing rapid-fire collisions among a swarm of icy, comet-like bodies. The researchers suggest the comet swarm is either the remnant of a crash between two icy worlds the size of Mars or frozen debris trapped and concentrated by the gravity of an as-yet-unseen planet.

    Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the researchers mapped millimeter-wavelength light from dust and carbon monoxide (CO) molecules in a disk surrounding the bright star Beta Pictoris. Located about 63 light-years away and only 20 million years old, the star hosts one of the closest, brightest and youngest debris disks known, making it an ideal laboratory for studying the early development of planetary systems.

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    Perchlorate Radiolysis on Mars

    The Viking 1 lander dug trenches on Mars to collect samples for later analysis. Credit: NASA The Viking 1 lander dug trenches on Mars to collect samples for later analysis. Credit: NASA

    Astrobiologists supported by the Exobiology element of NASA’s Astrobiology Program have provided new information about the survival of biosignatures on Mars. Their study also provides new insight into data from a NASA mission that was sent to the red planet almost 40 years ago.

    In 1976, NASA’s twin Viking probes landed on Mars to search for signs of microbial life. The data they returned created a great deal of debate. The new study published last autumn in the journal Astrobiology reveals details about possible chemical activity on Mars that could help explain the Viking results. The team simulated martian conditions in the laboratory and performed experiments to examine the martian environment at the Viking landing sites. The results suggest that the Viking landers found evidence of perchlorate salts – not evidence of life.

    “What the discovery of perchlorate tells us about is how the surface of Mars may have evolved in more recent times,” said lead author Richard Quinn of the SETI Institute in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine. “The question is about preservation potential of biosignatures rather than the intrinsic habitability of the ancient environment.”

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    Soffen Memorial Fund Travel Grants

    The Gerald A. Soffen Memorial Fund is offering the first of two 2014 Travel Grant application opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing studies in fields of space science and engineering.

    The Travel Grants, in the amount of $500, enable student recipients to attend professional meetings to present their research. The first 2014 Travel Grant application deadline is May 15, 2014.

    Jerry Soffen, a biologist by training, led a distinguished career in NASA, including serving as the Project Scientist for Viking and as an architect for the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The Travel Grant continues Jerry’s dedication to educating and involving future generations in space science and engineering pursuits.

    The electronic application materials and instructions are located on the Soffen Fund website: http://SoffenFund.org
    Questions regarding the application or application process may be sent to: info@SoffenFund.org

    L’Oréal USA For Women in Science Fellowship Program

    The L’Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship program is a national awards program that annually recognizes and rewards five U.S.-based women researchers at the beginning of their scientific careers. Recipients receive up to $60,000 each that they must put towards their postdoctoral research. The program’s partner, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), manages the peer-review process.

    Eligibility criteria:

    • Must have completed their Ph.D. and have started in their postdoctoral position by September 1, 2014. They must also maintain that status throughout the Fellowship year
    • Must be American born, naturalized citizen or permanent resident
    • Must be affiliated with a U.S. based academic or research institution
    • Must plan to conduct their postdoctoral studies and research in the U.S.
    • Must be involved in basic research in the life and physical/material sciences, engineering & technology, computer science and mathematics
    • Cannot be in a faculty position
    • Must commit to at least ten hours of activity in support of women and girls in science (e.g. mentoring, classroom visits, media, events)


    The application deadline is May 19th. Winners will be announced in September 2014, and the award ceremony will take place in November in Washington, D.C.

    For all the program information visit: http://www.lorealusa.com/Foundation/Article.aspx?topcode=Foundation_AccessibleScience_Fellowships

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    LunGradCon 2014 – Abstract Submission Now Open!

    This fifth annual Lunar and Small Bodies Graduate Conference (LunGradCon 2014) will be held at NASA Ames on Sunday, July 20, 2014. LunGradCon 2014 will address the following research topics of the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute:

    • Dust/Regolith and Plasma
    • Geology and Geophysics
    • Volatiles/Exospheres
    • Missions and Human Exploration

    For all the meeting information visit: http://impact.colorado.edu/lungradcon/2014/

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    Astrobiology Graduates in Europe (AbGradE) Symposium

    The AbGradE symposium will be hosted in Edinburgh, Scotland, October 9-10, 2014. The organization committee is comprised of both graduate and postdoctoral researchers across Europe. The symposium will host 40 participants consisting of graduate students and early career postdocs. The conference will be held for the first time in 2014. The proposed conference will consist of two days of scientific sessions and an event dedicated to public outreach and education. To aid the setting up of ABGradE, there will be a world-cafe brainstorming event and a round table discussion. Several invited keynote lecturers will give a basic introduction into the main subfields of Astrobiology, helping new graduate students and post-docs in the field to understand the research of the other participants. This will also be a useful introduction to the sort of topics that will be discussed in the following EANA meeting (13-16 October 2014), which will also be held in Edinburgh. All participants will then present their work with a talk or a poster, unless they are presenting at the succeeding EANA meeting. This enables early career astrobiologists to expand their horizons by forming collaborations and sharing their work and ideas with their contemporaries, a critical element in such an interdisciplinary field as astrobiology. Pre-registration is now open at: http://www.eana-net.eu/

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    Planetary Habitability Opportunities for 2015 at the University of Chicago

    A new research group will be starting January 2015 at the University of Chicago. Research will be directed towards understanding the processes that sustain habitable planets. Areas of particular interest are: Early Mars – geologic proxies for paleoclimate (geology, stratigraphy, paleohydrology, geomorphology), climate modeling; rocky exoplanets; and Europa and Enceladus. To find out more about this opportunity, visit: http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~kite/opportunities/

    Funding has been secured to hire a planetary GIS / data specialist, one or more postdocs, and graduate students. Prospective graduate students should apply through the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago at: https://jobopportunities.uchicago.edu (Requisition Number: 094770)

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    Two Postdoctoral Opportunities for Mars Magnetic Fields and Upper Atmosphere Research at NASA GSFC/CRESST/ U. of Maryland

    Application Deadline: May 23, 2014

    Applications are now being accepted for two Postdoctoral Research Associates, funded through the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) and the Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science and Technology (CRESST), to work in the Planetary Magnetospheres Laboratory of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in the area of Mars magnetic fields and upper atmosphere investigations using data from the MAVEN mission. Additional details are available at: http://www.astro.umd.edu/employment/

    Candidates for either position should have a Ph.D. in a relevant discipline with prior experience conducting scientific research related to the Maven science objectives or the types of instruments included in the MAVEN science payload. Interactive Data Language (IDL) skills and experience in acquisition and analysis of data from space flight instruments are highly desirable.

    The University of Maryland is an equal opportunity employer. All applications received by May 23, 2014 will receive full consideration.

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    May 6 Abstract Submission Deadline for European Planetary Science Conference 2014 Sept. 7 – 12 in Cascais, Portugal

    May 7 Early Registration and Abstract Submission Deadline for “6th Alfven Conference: Plasma Interactions with Solar System Objects Anticipating the Rosetta, MAVEN and Mars Orbiter Missions:http://bit.ly/alfven-2014 July 7 – 11 at University College London (UCL), UK

    May 13 Abstract Submission Deadline for Cosmic Dust Aug. 4 – 8 in Osaka, Japan

    May 15 Application Deadline for Soffen Memorial Fund Travel Grants

    May 15 Abstract Submission Deadline for Workshop on the Study of the Ice Giant Planets

    May 17 Early Registration for 40th Scientific Assembly of the Committee on Space Research Aug. 2 – 10 in Moscow, Russia

    May 19 Application Deadline for L’Oréal USA For Women in Science Fellowship Program

    May 23 Application Deadline for Two Postdoctoral Opportunities for Mars Magnetic Fields and Upper Atmosphere Research at NASA GSFC/CRESST/ U. of Maryland

    May 28 Abstract Submission will Open for 46th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society Division of Planetary Sciences Nov. 9 – 14 in Tucson, AZ

    May 30 Application Deadline for JAXA International Top Young Fellowship 2014

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