University of California, Los Angeles
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Researchers with the UCLA Team are investigating six broad frontiers of knowledge within the scope of astrobiology, using techniques and instruments that have not been widely applied before. These are:
- Prediction, detection, and characterization of extrasolar planetary systems that may be abodes for life. Investigation of the prevalence and properties of comets and small objects observationally and also theoretically, the latter in the context of modeling planetesimal accretion in the presence of one or more giant planets.
- Geobiology and biogeochemistry of the oldest record of life on Earth and Mars. Exploration of the undiscovered Hadean history of Earth and Mars as cradles for life using Earth’s oldest geological terrains (Australia, Canada, Greenland) plus Martian meteorites and returned samples
- Paleomicrobiology and the evolution of metabolic pathways in the Archean environment. Definition of the morphological attributes plus trace element and isotopic signatures of microbial biosynthetic pathways in living cells, and the application of this knowledge to interpret the microbial fossil record of the early Earth as a prelude to Mars.
- Genomic evolution , the tree of life, and the early fossil record of life on Earth. Reconstruction of the genomes, and hence the biochemistries, of crucial nodes in the tree of life and integration of that knowledge with the fossil record using key fossils, biogeochemical signatures, radioisotopic ages, and molecular clocks. This line of investigation includes both experimental and theoretical studies of evolutionary processes.
- Planetary science: Celestial influences on planetary environments. This emphasis examines the early Solar System environment as a potential habitat for life using naturally delivered and recovered extraterrestrial materials. Geophysical and geological exploration of an area in the Bellingshausen Sea, which is the only known site of an asteroid impact into a deep-ocean basin, is being used to understand the processes and environmental effects of an oceanic event of this scale. Additional insight into large impacts within the habitable zone is coming from long numerical integrations of Solar System dynamics. And, in a different study members of the UCLA Team have developed a mission-testable, end-member model for heat production within Europa that has important implications for the possibility of maintaining life in Europa’s subsurface ocean.
- Detection of life in the Solar System. Small spacecraft-mounted searches for evidence of biology and prebiology on Mars, Europa, and Titan based on laboratory and field experiences on Earth. Currently the UCLA Teams is working on the Artemis multi-Scout mission, which has been selected by NASA as one of ten potential payloads for launch in 2007. The plan for Artemis is to send an orbiter carrying three or more small landers which will be targeted to a wide range of latitudes, including the polar regions.