1. NAI Newsletter 2014-09-11

    September 11, 2014 Issue






    Dr. Carl Pilcher Returns to NAI as Interim Director

    The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) welcomes back Dr. Carl B. Pilcher as NAI Interim Director. Carl returned to the Institute August 11, 2014, serving on a half-time basis for approximately one year, as the selection of a permanent director is completed.

    Dr. Pilcher has had careers in both academia and NASA management. Dr. Pilcher retired as Director of the NAI in early 2013, after leading the Institute for more than six years. Prior to directing the Institute, he was the Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Headquarters with overall management responsibility for NASA’s Astrobiology Program.

    You can read Dr. Pilcher’s complete bio at: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/directory/people/pilcher-carl/.

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    Selection of NASA Astrobiology Program Postdoctoral Program Fellows from the March 2014 Opportunity

    The NASA Astrobiology Program is pleased to announce the selection of three new NASA Postdoctoral Fellows:

    Benjamin Charnay
    Advisor: Victoria Meadows (NAI Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington)
    Topic: 3D Modeling of the Cloudy/Hazy Atmospheres of the Early Earth and Exoplanets

    Eva Stueeken
    Advisor: Roger Buick (NAI Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington)
    Topic: Zinc Isotopes in Ancient Lakes: Calibrating a Biogeochemical Proxy and Investigating the Importance of Non-Marine Environments for the Early Evolution of Life

    Elizabeth Wilbanks
    Advisor: Victoria Orphan (Caltech, NAI University of Southern California team)
    Topic: In Situ Detection and Activity of the ‘Intraterrestrials’

    The next opportunity to apply for this program will be November 1, 2014. For more information visit: https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-postdoctoral-fellowship-program/.

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    Call for Session Topics and Organizers for AbSciCon 2015

    Deadline to submit Session Topics is October 22, 2014

    The Astrobiology Science Conference 2015 (AbSciCon 2015) Science Organizing Committee is soliciting community input for Session Topics and Session Organizers. Given the wide variety of disciplinary tools and topics to be presented at the conference, the success of AbSciCon 2015 will be built upon the community’s involvement in the organization of topical sessions. Community members are urged to be proactive in proposing sessions, merging similar session topics, and organizing abstracts into selected sessions.

    To submit a session topic and to see the list of submissions visit: http://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2015/program/topics/.
    For all the conference information, visit: http://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2015/.

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    Planetary Science Committees: Agendas and Presentations Available

    Two planetary science meetings took place on September 3-4, 2014. The scientific community presented scientific and technical information relevant to program planning to the Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS) at NASA HQ. The agenda, including the presentations, is available at: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/pss/sep2014/

    The Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences (CAPS) meeting was held in Irvine, CA. This committee supports scientific progress in astrobiology and planetary science and assists the federal government in integrating and planning programs in these fields. The agenda is available at: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/SSB/SSB_067577.htm

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    Ancient Earth, Alien Earths: A Panel Discussion

    Leading scientific experts were convened at NASA Headquarters on August 20th to discuss early Earth and how studying it can inform our search for life elsewhere in the Universe. Leading scientific experts were convened at NASA Headquarters on August 20th to discuss early Earth and how studying it can inform our search for life elsewhere in the Universe.

    What can Earth’s history teach us about planets orbiting other stars? If you could visit the early Earth, you would find it a vastly different, inhospitable, and alien place. Yet, it was in this environment that life on this planet began and evolved.

    NASA, NSF, and the Smithsonian Institution hosted a panel on August 20th in Washington, DC, featuring leading science experts, to discuss what is known about our ancient Earth, and how that information can guide the search for habitable planets orbiting other stars. The event was recorded, and the archived video can be viewed here.

    The panel moderator was David Grinspoon, senior scientist, Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. and former Blumberg NASA-Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Washington DC. Panelists included:

    • Phoebe Cohen, Professor of Geosciences Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts
    • Shawn Domagal-Goldman, Research Space Scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt. Maryland
    • Christopher House, Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania
    • Timothy Lyons, Professor of Biogeochemistry, UC Riverside, Riverside, California
    • Dawn Sumner, Professor of Geology, UC Davis, Davis, California

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    2014 NASA EONS Solicitation, New Appendix

    Proposals are due November 12, 2014

    NASA’s Office of Education is accepting new proposals under the Education Opportunities in NASA STEM (EONS) 2014, NASA Research Announcement for the MUREP Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) appendix. This effort was previously titled: “NASA University Research Centers Project” and has now been consolidated into the MUREP Program within the NASA Office of Education. Through the EONS omnibus solicitation, the MIRO opportunity has been released. Overall, MIRO awards aim to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) literacy, and to enhance and sustain the capability of minority serving institutions to perform NASA-related research and education. It directly supports NASA’s four Mission Directorates – Aeronautics Research, Human Exploration and Space Operations, Science, and Space Technology. For more information regarding the MIRO Solicitation, please visit the NASA EONS page in NSPIRES:


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    Modeling Sulfur in the Archean Atmosphere

    Artist impression of Earth during the Archean eon. Image Credit: Peter Sawyer / Smithsonian Institution Artist impression of Earth during the Archean eon. Image Credit: Peter Sawyer / Smithsonian Institution

    A new study supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) has revealed details about the composition of Earth’s atmosphere during the Archean eon, which occurred roughly 4.0 to 2.4 billion years ago.

    Astrobiologists study the Archean in order to better understand the early evolution of life on Earth, and how organisms survived in an environment that was much different than the planet today. Studying the Archean Earth can also provide clues about life’s potential beyond our planet.

    “The Archean Earth is the most habitable planet for which we have data, so studying it is one of the best ways we have of studying alien planets,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and co-author on the paper.

    Read the whole story here.

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    How Titan’s Haze Helps Us Understand Life’s Origins

    Saturn’s moon Titan appears as a hazy ball from a distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute Saturn’s moon Titan appears as a hazy ball from a distance. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

    In a new study, astrobiologists are attempting to recreate substances found in the atmosphere of Titan, known as tholins. These organic aerosols are formed by radiation and interact with the thick atmosphere of the Saturnian moon. The production of organics in Titan’s atmosphere could help astrobiologists better understand the conditions in which life arose on the early Earth.

    The study was led by Dr. Chao He at the University of Houston (now of Johns Hopkins University). Chao is a chemist studying Tholin Chemical Analysis Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance with the NASA Astrobiology Intitute (NAI) team at NASA JPL.

    Source: [astrobio.net]

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    NASA’s 3-D Study of Comets Reveals Chemical Factory at Work

    This rotating 3-D map shows how HCN molecules are released from the nucleus of comet Lemmon and then spread evenly throughout the atmosphere, or coma. Image Credit: Brian Kent/NRAO/AUI/NSF

    A NASA-led team of scientists has created detailed 3-D maps of the atmospheres surrounding comets, identifying several gases and mapping their spread at the highest resolution ever achieved.

    “We achieved truly first-of-a-kind mapping of important molecules that help us understand the nature of comets,” said Martin Cordiner, a researcher working in the Goddard Center for Astrobiology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Cordiner led the international team of researchers.

    Almost unheard of for comet studies, the 3-D perspective provides deeper insight into which materials are shed from the nucleus of the comet and which are produced within the atmosphere, or coma. This helped the team nail down the sources of two key organic, or carbon-containing, molecules.

    The observations were conducted in 2013 on comets Lemmon and ISON using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, a network of high-precision antennas in Chile. These comets are the first to be studied with ALMA.

    To read the entire story, visit: http://nai.nasa.gov/articles/2014/8/13/nasas-3-d-study-of-comets-reveals-chemical-factory-at-work/.

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    NASA Astrobiology Program Early Career Collaboration Awards

    Application Deadline: October 1, 2014

    The Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Awards offer research-related travel support for undergraduate, graduate students, postdocs, and junior scientists. Applicants are encouraged to use these resources to circulate among two or more laboratories supported by the NASA Astrobiology Program (the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology, Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research, MatiSSE, PICASSO and the Habitable Worlds Programs), however any travel that is critical for the applicant’s research will be considered. Travelers must be formally affiliated with a U.S. institution. Requests are limited to $5,000.

    For application instructions, visit https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-early-career-collaboration-award/.

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    Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life Opportunities

    Applications Deadline: September 12, 2014

    The Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life is now accepting applications for its Simons Investigator and Simons Postdoctoral Fellowship awards. The origins of life are among the great unsolved scientific problems of our age. To advance our knowledge of the processes that led to the emergence of life, the Simons Foundation established the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life (SCOL). The Collaboration supports creative, innovative research on topics such as 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.

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    2015 Exploration Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunity at ASU

    Application Deadline: October 31, 2014

    The School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at Arizona State University invites applications for the position of Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow. The fellowship provides opportunities for outstanding early-career scientists and engineers emphasizing interdisciplinary collaboration. Research areas within SESE encompass earth and planetary sciences, astrobiology, astrophysics and cosmology, instrumentation and systems engineering, and science education.

    Incoming Fellows will receive an annual stipend of $60,000 with health benefits, plus $6,000 per year in discretionary research funds. A relocation allowance will be provided. Appointments will be for up to three years and shall commence between July 1 and August 31, 2015.

    Applications must include a research proposal that has been discussed with two prospective faculty mentors in SESE. Applications are to be submitted via email to: exppd@asu.edu. A full description of the application process is available at: http://sese.asu.edu/ExplorationPostdocFellowships.

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    Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences

    Application Deadline: September 15, 2014

    The objective of the Mason Award is to kick-start the research career of promising future senior investigators in the chemical sciences. The Marion Milligan Mason Fund will provide three grants of $50,000 every other year to women researchers engaged in basic research in the chemical sciences. Awards are for women who are starting their academic research careers. In addition to research funding, the program will provide leadership development and mentoring opportunities.

    Applicants must have a “full-time” career-track appointment. More than one applicant from the same institution can apply for this award, provided that each application is scientifically distinct. For more information about the request for proposals for the Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences, please click here to view the PDF.

    As a chemist and AAAS member since 1965, the late Marion Tuttle Milligan Mason wanted to support the advancement of women in the chemical sciences. Dr. Milligan also wanted to honor her family’s commitment to higher education for women, as demonstrated by her parents and grandfather, who encouraged and sent several daughters to college.

    Awards will be announced on or before May 1, 2015. Proposals should be submitted via the online application system at https://masonaward.aaas.org.

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    Postdoctoral Associate Opportunity at MIT in the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department

    The Fournier Lab within the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department at MIT is seeking qualified candidates for the position of Postdoctoral Associate for a 1-year appointment, with possible extension, to begin in the Fall of 2014.

    The Fournier Lab is a part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute MIT team. Ongoing research areas include microbial phylogenetics and phylometabolomics, development of molecular clock models and time calibration of microbial evolution across planetary timescales, horizontal gene transfer, ancestral sequence reconstruction, genomic paleontology, and co-evolution of microbial ecology and planetary processes.

    Requirements: PhD with a strong background in bioinformatics, phylogenetics, statistics, and computer programming. Highly motivated, independent researchers are especially encouraged to apply. Qualified applicants are encouraged to apply by email to Professor Gregory Fournier: g4nier@mit.edu.

    Applications should include Curriculum Vitae, three professional references (name, email address and telephone number), and a brief statement of research interests.

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    ESA Postdoctoral Fellowships in Space Science

    Application Deadline: October 1, 2014

    The European Space Agency awards several postdoctoral fellowships each year. The aim of these fellowships is to provide young scientists, holding a PhD or the equivalent degree, with the means of performing space science research in fields related to the ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Programs. Areas of research include planetary science, astronomy and astrophysics, solar and solar-terrestrial science, plasma physics and fundamental physics. The fellowships have a duration of two years and are tenable at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, Netherlands, or at the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) in Villafranca del Castillo, near Madrid, Spain.

    Applications are now solicited for fellowships in space science to begin in the fall of 2015. Preference will be given to applications submitted by candidates within five years of receiving their PhD. Candidates not yet holding a PhD are encouraged to apply, but they must provide evidence that they have received their degree before starting the fellowship.

    For more information visit: http://cosmos.esa.int/fellowship.

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    Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunities

    Application Deadline: November 6, 2014

    The NASA Exoplanet Science Institute is soliciting applications for five Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowships to begin in the fall of 2015. The deadline for applications and letters of reference and endorsement is Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 4 pm PST.

    The Sagan Fellowships support outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration program. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars.

    More information visit: http://nexsci.caltech.edu/sagan/fellowship.shtml.
    For questions email: saganfellowship@ipac.caltech.edu.

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    California High School Students Become Field Astrobiologists

    Led by a NASA scientist, students hike into Lassen Volcanic National Park to sample hydrothermal waters. NASA Led by a NASA scientist, students hike into Lassen Volcanic National Park to sample hydrothermal waters. NASA

    Mayson Trujillo stretches across a rock at the edge of a stream cascading through Lassen Volcanic National Park. Braving snow from an advancing blizzard, she meticulously collects a sample of the sulphur-scented water. Trujillo, a senior at Red Bluff High School in California, is intent on the task at hand: gathering data that may hold clues for early life on Earth—and potentially, Mars.

    To reach the stream, Trujillo and 13 classmates snowshoed a mile into the center of an ancient volcano—for them, a routine field trip in a one-of-a-kind collaboration with NASA. The park’s mud pots and fumaroles can exceed 240˚F, too hot for most creatures but potentially habitable to the types of microbes that populated Earth 3.5 billion years ago. Understanding those conditions could help astrobiologists interpret signs of life on other planets, particularly Mars, where the Curiosity rover is scooping up soil. And the database of hydrothermal features the students have been building, based on sample analyses they do back at their high school lab, could guide future exploration of the Red Planet.

    Dave Des Marais, a NASA geochemist who has been involved in Mars missions since the 1990s, started the Red Bluff program six years ago. He says the work being done by the students—possibly NASA’s only high school astrobiology interns—is sophisticated research, worthy of college juniors and seniors. By providing “real science in all its gory details,” Des Marais says, he hopes to develop a cadre of professional astrobiologists who will continue the search long after he and his colleagues are gone.

    The class is no “easy A”. In fact, interns don’t even receive credit for their after-school commitment. But who else gets to have snowball fights with NASA scientists, asks Trujillo, as she seals her water sample into a sterile tube. “And it’d be so crazy if we actually find something out there on Mars,” she says, “even if it’s only a microbe.”

    This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

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    JPL Summer Intern Works on the Emergence of Life

    JPL intern Jessica Nuñez observes hydrothermal chimneys in the laboratory. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Alexis Drake JPL intern Jessica Nuñez observes hydrothermal chimneys in the laboratory. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Alexis Drake

    Not many interns get the opportunity to study one of humanity’s biggest questions: How did life emerge? But mechanical engineering major Jessica Nuñez is having the experience of a lifetime in search of the answer. Nuñez is interning this summer in the Planetary Sciences Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    As part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute project led by Isik Kanik, Nuñez constructs and analyzes simulated hydrothermal vents, chimney-like structures that are hypothesized to have been the birthing grounds for the emergence of life. On a daily basis, she examines the chimneys, which she constructs herself through a chemical process, and analyzes them with one of her favorite tools in the lab: an electron microscope. “It gets the coolest pictures,” she said. “It’s awesome to be exposed to technology here at JPL that I wouldn’t be exposed to anywhere else.” Nuñez observes the chimney’s composition to see how its structure changes over periods of time. Along with her cohorts, she is hoping to see a chemical reaction similar to the one that scientists believe produced life on Earth.

    Read the entire article here.

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    Sept 12 – Application Deadline for Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life Investigator and Postdoctoral Fellowship http://www.simonsfoundation.org/funding/funding-opportunities/life-sciences/collaboration-on-the-origins-of-life-investigator-award/

    Sept 15 - Step-1 Proposal Deadline for ROSES-14 Amendment 4: Eligible TRLs changed for C.12, PICASSO

    Sept 15 – Proposal deadline for the Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences https://masonaward.aaas.org/

    Sept 25 - Proposal Deadline for Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3)

    Sept 26 – Step-2 proposal deadline for ROSES-14 Amendment 2: Final text for C.14, PSTAR http://nspires.nasaprs.com/

    Sept 26 - Step-2 proposal deadline for Cassini Data Analysis and Participating Scientists (CDAPS14)

    Sept 30 – Abstract Submission Deadline for Hayabusa 2014: 2nd Symposium of Solar System Materials http://hayabusaao.isas.jaxa.jp/symposium/

    Oct 1 – Application Deadline for NASA Astrobiology Program Early Career Collaboration Award https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-early-career-collaboration-award/

    Oct 1 – Application Deadline for ESA Postdoctoral Fellowships in Space Science http://cosmos.esa.int/fellowship