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  • richardmitnick 9:33 pm on November 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Astrobiology,   

    From NASA NExSS: “NExSS Coalition to Lead Search for Life on Distant Worlds” April 2015 but Important 

    NASA NExSS bloc


    Last Updated: July 30, 2015
    Editor: Sarah Loff

    The search for life beyond our solar system requires unprecedented cooperation across scientific disciplines. NASA’s NExSS collaboration includes those who study Earth as a life-bearing planet (lower right), those researching the diversity of solar system planets (left), and those on the new frontier, discovering worlds orbiting other stars in the galaxy (upper right). Credits: NASA

    NASA is bringing together experts spanning a variety of scientific fields for an unprecedented initiative dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system.

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or “NExSS”, hopes to better understand the various components of an exoplanet, as well as how the planet stars and neighbor planets interact to support life.

    “This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” says Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

    The study of exoplanets – planets around other stars – is a relatively new field. The discovery of the first exoplanet around a star like our sun was made in 1995. Since the launch of NASA’s Kepler space telescope six years ago, more than 1,000 exoplanets have been found, with thousands of additional candidates waiting to be confirmed.

    NASA Kepler Telescope

    Scientists are developing ways to confirm the habitability of these worlds and search for biosignatures, or signs of life.

    The key to this effort is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “system science” approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets.

    NExSS will tap into the collective expertise from each of the science communities supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:

    Earth scientists develop a systems science approach by studying our home planet.
    Planetary scientists apply systems science to a wide variety of worlds within our solar system.
    Heliophysicists add another layer to this systems science approach, looking in detail at how the Sun interacts with orbiting planets.
    Astrophysicists provide data on the exoplanets and host stars for the application of this systems science framework.

    NExSS will bring together these prominent research communities in an unprecedented collaboration, to share their perspectives, research results, and approaches in the pursuit of one of humanity’s deepest questions: Are we alone?

    The team will help classify the diversity of worlds being discovered, understand the potential habitability of these worlds, and develop tools and technologies needed in the search for life beyond Earth.

    Dr. Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA notes, “NExSS scientists will not only apply a systems science approach to existing exoplanet data, their work will provide a foundation for interpreting observations of exoplanets from future exoplanet missions such as TESS, JWST, and WFIRST.”


    NASA Webb Telescope

    NASA WFIRST telescope

    The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is working toward a 2017 launch, with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled for launch in 2018. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope is currently being studied by NASA for a launch in the 2020’s.

    NExSS will be led by Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Dawn Gelino with NExScI, the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and Anthony del Genio of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The NExSS project will also include team members from 10 different universities and two research institutes. These teams were selected from proposals submitted across NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

    The Berkeley/Stanford University team is led by James Graham. This “Exoplanets Unveiled” group will focus on this question: “What are the properties of exoplanetary systems, particularly as they relate to their formation, evolution, and potential to harbor life?”


    Daniel Apai leads the Earths in Other Solar Systems team from the University of Arizona. The EOS team will combine astronomical observations of exoplanets and forming planetary systems with powerful computer simulations and cutting-edge microscopic studies of meteorites from the early solar system to understand how Earth-like planets form and how biocritical ingredients — C, H, N, O-containing molecules — are delivered to these worlds.


    The Arizona State University team will take a similar approach. Led by Steven Desch, this research group will place planetary habitability in a chemical context, with the goal of producing a “periodic table of planets”. Additionally, the outputs from this team will be critical inputs to other teams modeling the atmospheres of other worlds.

    Researchers from Hampton University will be exploring the sources and sinks for volatiles on habitable worlds. The Living, Breathing Planet Team, led by William B. Moore, will study how the loss of hydrogen and other atmospheric compounds to space has profoundly changed the chemistry and surface conditions of planets in the solar system and beyond. This research will help determine the past and present habitability of Mars and even Venus, and will form the basis for identifying habitable and eventually living planets around other stars.


    The team centered at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies will investigate habitability on a more local scale. Led by Tony Del Genio, it will examine the habitability of solar system rocky planets through time, and will use that foundation to inform the detection and characterization of habitable exoplanets in the future.


    The NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, based at the University of Washington, was founded in 2001 and is a heritage team of the NExSS network. This research group, led by Dr. Victoria Meadows, will combine expertise from Earth observations, Earth system science, planetary science, and astronomy to explore factors likely to affect the habitability of exoplanets, as well as the remote detectability of global signs of habitability and life.

    Five additional teams were chosen from the Planetary Science Division portion of the Exoplanets Research Program (ExRP). Each brings a unique combination of expertise to understand the fundamental origins of exoplanetary systems, through laboratory, observational, and modeling studies.

    A group led by Neal Turner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, will work to understand why so many exoplanets orbit close to their stars. Were they born where we find them, or did they form farther out and spiral inward? The team will investigate how the gas and dust close to young stars interact with planets, using computer modeling to go beyond what can be imaged with today’s telescopes on the ground and in space.

    A team at the University of Wyoming, headed by Hannah Jang-Condell, will explore the evolution of planet formation, modeling disks around young stars that are in the process of forming their planets. Of particular interest are “transitional” disks, which are protostellar disks that appear to have inner holes or regions partially cleared of gas and dust. These inner holes may be caused in part by planets inside or near the holes.

    A Penn State University team, led by Eric Ford, will strive to further understand planetary formation by investigating the bulk properties of small transiting planets and implications for their formation.

    A second Penn State group, with Jason Wright as principal investigator, will study the atmospheres of giant planets that are transiting hot Jupiters with a novel, high-precision technique called diffuser-assisted photometry. This research aims to enable more detailed characterization of the temperatures, pressures, composition, and variability of exoplanet atmospheres.


    The University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center team, with Wade Henning at the helm, will study tidal dynamics and orbital evolution of terrestrial class exoplanets. This effort will explore how intense tidal heating, such as the temporary creation of magma oceans, can actually save Earth-sized planets from being ejected during the orbital chaos of early solar systems.

    Another University of Maryland project, led by Drake Deming, will leverage a statistical analysis of Kepler data to extract the maximum amount of information concerning the atmospheres of Kepler’s planets.

    The group led by Hiroshi Imanaka from the SETI Institute will be conducting laboratory investigation of plausible photochemical haze particles in hot, exoplanetary atmospheres.

    The Yale University team, headed by Debra Fischer, will design new spectrometers with the stability to reach Earth-detecting precision for nearby stars. The team will also make improvements to Planet Hunters, http://www.planethunters.org, a web interface that allows citizen scientists to search for transiting planets in the NASA Kepler public archive data. Citizen scientists have found more than 100 planets not previously detected; many of these planets are in the habitable zones of host stars.

    A group led by Adam Jensen at the University of Nebraska-Kearney will explore the existence and evolution of exospheres around exoplanets, the outer, ‘unbound’ portion of a planet’s atmosphere. This team previously made the first visible light detection of hydrogen absorption from an exoplanet’s exosphere, indicating a source of hot, excited hydrogen around the planet. The existence of such hydrogen can potentially tell us about the long-term evolution of a planet’s atmosphere, including the effects and interactions of stellar winds and planetary magnetic fields.

    From the University of California, Santa Cruz, Jonathan Fortney’s team will investigate how novel statistical methods can be used to extract information from light which is emitted and reflected by planetary atmospheres, in order to understand their atmospheric temperatures and the abundance of molecules.

    See the full article here .

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    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

  • richardmitnick 10:10 pm on November 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , ,   

    From U Hawaii: “UH Researchers Shed New Light on the Origins of Earth’s Water” 

    U Hawaii

    University of Hawaii

    12 November 2015
    Dr. Lydia Hallis
    cell: +44 (0)7709585622

    Dr. Karen Meech
+1 808-956-6828
    cell: +1 720-231-7048

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    Media Contact
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    Scanning electron microscope image of a Baffin Island picrite (type of basaltic rock). The mineral olivine, shown as abundant mid-gray color cracked grains (A), hosts glassy melt inclusions (B) containing tiny amounts of water sourced from Earth’s deep mantle. Image by Lydia J. Hallis.

    Water covers more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface, but its exact origins are still something of a mystery. Scientists have long been uncertain whether water was present at the formation of the planet, or if it arrived later, perhaps carried by comets and meteorites.

    Now researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, using advanced ion-microprobe instrumentation, have found that rocks from Baffin Island in Canada contain evidence that Earth’s water was a part of our planet from the beginning. Their research is published in the 13 November issue of the journal Science.

    The research team was led by cosmochemist Dr. Lydia Hallis, then a postdoctoral fellow at the UH NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI) and now Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

    The ion microprobe allowed researchers to focus on minute pockets of glass inside these scientifically important rocks, and to detect the tiny amounts of water within. The ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the water provided them with valuable new clues as to its origins.

    Hydrogen has an atomic mass of one, while deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen also known as “heavy hydrogen,” has an atomic mass of two. Scientists have discovered that water from different types of planetary bodies in our solar system have distinct hydrogen to deuterium ratios.

    Dr. Hallis explained, “The Baffin Island rocks were collected back in 1985, and scientists have had a lot of time to analyze them in the intervening years. As a result of their efforts, we know that they contain a component from Earth’s deep mantle.

    “On their way to the surface, these rocks were never affected by sedimentary input from crustal rocks, and previous research shows their source region has remained untouched since Earth’s formation. Essentially, they are some of the most primitive rocks we’ve ever found on Earth’s surface, and so the water they contain gives us an invaluable insight into Earth’s early history and where its water came from.

    “We found that the water had very little deuterium, which strongly suggests that it was not carried to Earth after it had formed and cooled. Instead, water molecules were likely carried on the dust that existed in a disk around our Sun before the planets formed. Over time this water-rich dust was slowly drawn together to form our planet.

    “Even though a good deal of water would have been lost at the surface through evaporation in the heat of the formation process, enough survived to form the world’s water.

    “It’s an exciting discovery, and one which we simply didn’t have the technology to make just a few years ago. We’re looking forward to further research in this area in the future.”

    The paper is entitled Evidence for primordial water in Earth’s deep mantle. UH co-authors are Dr. Gary Huss, Dr. Kazuhide Nagashima, Prof. G. Jeffrey Taylor, Prof. Mike Mottl, and Dr. Karen Meech.

    The research was funded by the University of Hawaii NASA Astrobiology Institute under Cooperative Agreement No. NNA09-DA77A.

    See the full article here .

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    System Overview

    The University of Hawai‘i System includes 10 campuses and dozens of educational, training and research centers across the Hawaiian Islands. As the public system of higher education in Hawai‘i, UH offers opportunities as unique and diverse as our Island home.

    The 10 UH campuses and educational centers on six Hawaiian Islands provide unique opportunities for both learning and recreation.

    UH is the State’s leading engine for economic growth and diversification, stimulating the local economy with jobs, research and skilled workers.

  • richardmitnick 9:59 am on October 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Astrobiology, , Zircons   

    From astrobio.net: “Study questions dates for cataclysms on early moon, Earth” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Oct 18, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    The deformed lunar zircon at center was brought from the moon by Apollo astronauts. The fractures characteristic of meteorite impact are not seen in most lunar zircons, so the ages they record probably reflect heating by molten rock, not impact. Photo: Apollo 17/Nicholas E. Timms

    Phenomenally durable crystals called zircons are used to date some of the earliest and most dramatic cataclysms of the solar system. One is the super-duty collision that ejected material from Earth to form the moon roughly 50 million years after Earth formed. Another is the late heavy bombardment, a wave of impacts that may have created hellish surface conditions on the young Earth, about 4 billion years ago.

    Both events are widely accepted but unproven, so geoscientists are eager for more details and better dates. Many of those dates come from zircons retrieved from the moon during NASA’s Apollo voyages in the 1970s.

    A study of zircons from a gigantic meteorite impact in South Africa, now online in the journal Geology, casts doubt on the methods used to date lunar impacts. The critical problem, says lead author Aaron Cavosie, a visiting professor of geoscience and member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the fact that lunar zircons are “ex situ,” meaning removed from the rock in which they formed, which deprives geoscientists of corroborating evidence of impact.

    “While zircon is one of the best isotopic clocks for dating many geological processes,” Cavosie says, “our results show that it is very challenging to use ex situ zircon to date a large impact of known age.”

    Although many of their zircons show evidence of shock, “once separated from host rocks, ex situ shocked zircons lose critical contextual information,” Cavosie says.

    The “clock” in a zircon occurs as lead isotopes accumulate during radioactive decay of uranium. With precise measurements of isotopes scientists can calculate, based on the half life of uranium, how long lead has been accumulating.

    If all lead was driven off during asteroid impact, the clock was reset, and the amount of accumulated lead should record exactly how long ago the impact occurred.

    Studies of lunar zircons have followed this procedure to produce dates from 4.3 billion to 3.9 billion years ago for the late heavy bombardment.

    This highly shocked zircon, from the Vredefort Dome in South Africa, shows thin, red bands that are a hallmark of meteorite impact. Uranium-lead dating from this zircon matched the age of the rocks exposed at Vredefort, not the more recent age of impact (2 billion years). Credit: Aaron Cavosie

    To evaluate the assumption of clock-resetting by impact, Cavosie and colleagues gathered zircons near Earth’s largest impact, located in South Africa and known to have occurred 2 billion years ago. The Vredefort impact structure is deeply eroded, and approximately 90 kilometers across, says Cavosie, who is also in the Department of Applied Geology at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. “The original size, estimated at 300 kilometers diameter, is modeled to result from an impactor 14 kilometers in diameter,” he says.

    Vredefort Dome

    The researchers searched for features within the zircons that are considered evidence of impact, and concluded that most of the ages reflect when the zircons formed in magma. The zircons from South Africa are “out of place grains that contain definitive evidence of shock deformation from the Vredefort impact,” Cavosie says. “However, most of the shocked grains do not record the age of the impact but rather the age of the rocks they formed in, which are about 1 billion years older.”

    The story is different on Earth, says zircon expert John Valley, a professor of geoscience at UW-Madison. “Most zircons on Earth are found in granite, and they formed in the same process that formed the granite. This has led people to assume that all the zircons were reset by impact, so the ages they get from the Moon are impact ages. Aaron is saying to know that, you have to apply strict criteria, and that’s not what people have been doing.”

    The accuracy of zircon dating affects our view of Earth’s early history. The poorly understood late heavy bombardment, for example, likely influenced when life arose, so dating the bombardment topped a priority list of the National Academy of Sciences for lunar studies. Did the giant craters on the moon form during a brief wave or a steady rain of impacts? “It would be nice to know which,” Valley says.

    “The question of what resets the zircon clock has always been very complicated. For a long time people have been saying if zircon is really involved in a major impact shock, its age will be reset, so you can date the impact. Aaron has been saying, ‘Yes, sometimes, but often what people see as a reset age may not really be reset.’ Zircons are the gift that keep on giving, and this will not change that, but we need to be a lot more careful in analyzing what that gift is telling us.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:26 am on October 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , astrobio.net, Astrobiology, , Plant life   

    From astrobio.net: “Ancient alga knew how to survive on land before it left water & evolved into first plant” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Closterium strigosum is one of the green algae the scientists analyzed. Credit: Michael Melkonian

    A team of scientists led by Dr Pierre-Marc Delaux (John Innes Centre / University of Wisconsin, Madison) has solved a long-running mystery about the first stages of plant life on earth.

    The team of scientists from the John Innes Centre, the University of Wisconsin – Madison and other international collaborators, has discovered how an ancient alga was able to inhabit land, before it went on to evolve into the world’s first plant and colonise the earth.

    Up until now it had been assumed that the alga evolved the capability to source essential nutrients for its survival after it arrived on land by forming a close association with a beneficial fungi called arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM), which still exists today and which helps plant roots obtain nutrients and water from soil in exchange for carbon.

    The previous discovery of 450 million year old fossilised spores similar to the spores of the AM fungi suggests this fungi would have been present in the environment encountered by the first land plants. Remnants of prehistoric fungi have also been found inside the cells of the oldest plant macro-fossils, reinforcing this idea.

    However, scientists were not clear how the algal ancestor of land plants could have survived long enough to mediate a quid pro quo arrangement with a fungi. This new finding points to the alga developing this crucial capability while still living in the earth’s oceans!

    Dr Delaux and colleagues analysed DNA and RNA of some of the earliest known land plants and green algae and found evidence that their shared algal ancestor living in the Earth’s waters already possessed the set of genes, or symbiotic pathways, it needed to detect and interact with the beneficial AM fungi.

    The team of scientists believes this capability was pivotal in enabling the alga to survive out of the water and to colonise the earth. By working with the fungi to find sustenance, the alga was able to buy time to adapt and evolve in a very different and seemingly infertile environment.

    Dr Delaux said: “At some point 450 million years ago, alga from the earth’s waters splashed up on to barren land. Somehow it survived and took root, a watershed moment that kick-started the evolution of life on earth. Our discovery shows for the first time that the alga already knew how to survive on land while it was still in the water. Without the development of this pre-adapted capability in alga, the earth could be a very different place today.

    “This finding has filled a gap in our collective knowledge about the origins of life on earth. None of this would have been possible without the dedication of a world-wide team of scientists including a tremendous contribution from the 1KP initiative led by Gane KS Wong .”

    Professor Jean-Michel Ané, from the University of Wisconsin said: “The surprise was finding the mechanisms in algae which allow plants to interact with symbiotic fungi. Nobody has studied beneficial associations in these algae.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 6:02 pm on October 1, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , , , U Kansas   

    From Kansas: “Scientists refine hunt for Mars life by analyzing rock samples in Western U.S” 

    U Kansas bloc

    University of Kansas

    LAWRENCE — The search for life beyond Earth is one of the grandest endeavors in the history of humankind — a quest that could transform our understanding of our universe both scientifically and spiritually.

    Petrographic thin section made from core sample. This 30 micron thin slice of rock allows a view of the types of features thought to be microbial. Here, the blue layers are an epoxy added in to see void-space in the rock, and the grey is sediment. The morphology of the orange-brown layers are suggestive of microbial activity, such as they way they roll over themselves in the bottom left and smoothly drape over the triangular feature. This type of deposition demonstrates that the sediment had to have a degree of cohesive stickiness, such as that provided by the presence of microbial mats.

    With news coming this week that NASA has confirmed the presence of flowing saltwater on the surface of Mars, the hunt for life on the Red Planet has new momentum.

    “One of the many reasons this is exciting is that life as we currently know it requires water,” said Alison Olcott-Marshall, assistant professor of geology at the University of Kansas. “So the fact that it’s present at Mars means that the most basic and universal requirement for life was fulfilled.”

    In the journal Astrobiology, Olcott-Marshall recently has published an analysis of Eocene rocks found in the Green River Formation, a lake system extending over parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

    Marshall and co-author Nicholas A. Cestari, a masters student in her lab, found these Green River rocks have features that visually indicate the presence of life, and they argue that probes to Mars should identify similar indicators on that planet and double-check them through chemical analysis.

    “Once something is launched into space, it becomes much harder to do tweaks — not impossible, but much, much harder,” Olcott-Marshall said. “Scientists are still debating the results of some of the life-detection experiments that flew to Mars on the Viking Missions in the late ’70s, in a large part because of how the experiments were designed. Looking at Earth-based analogs lets us get some of these bumps smoothed out here on Earth, when we can revise, replicate and re-run experiments easily.”

    Petrographic thin section made from core sample. This 30 micron thin slice of rock allows a view of the types of features thought to be microbial, such as the layers that fold over themselves in the middle of the sample marked 2534.8’. This demonstrates that the sediment had to have a degree of cohesive stickiness, such as that provided by the presence of microbial mats.

    The researchers examined cored samples of rock from 50 million years ago that included sections of “microbial mats.”

    “Microbial mats are essentially the microbial world’s version of apartment buildings — they are layered communities of microbes, and each layer represents a different metabolic strategy,” Olcott-Marshall said. “Generally, the photosynthetic microbes are at the top, and then every successive layer makes use of the waste products of the level above. Thus, not only does a microbial mat contain a great deal of biology, but a great number of chemicals, pigments and metabolic products are made, which means lots of potential biosignatures.”

    At times during the Eocene, the Green River Formation’s water chemistry purged fish and other organisms from the lake, providing room for these microbes to thrive.

    “During these times, ‘microbialites’ formed — these are rocks thought to be made by microbial processes, essentially the preserved remnants of microbial mats. The Green River Formation has a wide variety of these structures, and these features are why we went looking in these rocks, as microbialites are one life-detection target on Mars.”

    First, the researchers visually inspected the cored samples for signs of biology by identifying geological signs associated with microbialites — such as “stromatolites.”

    “These are things like finely laminated sediments, where each lamination follows the ones below, or signs of cohesive sediment, things like layers that roll over onto themselves or are at an angle steeper than what gravity would allow,” Olcott-Marshall said. “These are all thought to be signs that microbes are helping hold sediment together.”

    If visual examination pointed to the presence of biology in sections of the rock cores, the researchers looked to confirm the presence of life. They powdered those rock samples in a ball mill, and then used hot organic solvents like methanol to remove any organic carbons that might have been preserved in the rocks. That solvent was then concentrated and analyzed with gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy.

    “GC/MS allows an identification of compounds, including organic molecules, preserved in a rock,” Olcott-Marshall said. “Viking was the first time that a GC/MS was sent to Mars, and there is one up there right now on Curiosity collecting data.”

    NASA Viking 2
    NASA/Viking 2

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover

    Through GC/MS, the researchers determined that rock structures appearing to be biological indeed hosted living organisms millions of years ago: analysis showed the presence of lipid biomarkers.

    “A lipid biomarker is the preserved remnant of a lipid, or a fat, once synthesized by an organism,” Olcott-Marshall said. “These can be simple or very complex. Different organisms make different lipids, so identifying the biomarker can often allow a deeper understanding of the biota or the environment present when a rock was formed. These are a type of biosignature.”

    The researchers said their results could be a powerful guide for sample selection on Mars.

    “There is a GC/MS on Curiosity right now, but there are only nine sample cups dedicated for looking for biomarkers like these,” Olcott-Marshall said. “It’s crucial those nine samples are ones most likely to guarantee success. Additionally, one of the goals of the planned 2020 rover mission is to identify samples for caching for eventual return to Earth. The amount of sample that can be returned is likely very small, thus, once again, doing our best to guarantee success is very important. What this shows is that we can use visual inspection to help us screen for these samples that are likely to be successful for further biosignature analysis.”

    She said microbial and non-microbial rocks are found in similar environments, with identical preservation histories for millions of years, and many of the same chemical parameters, such as amounts of organic carbon preserved in the rocks.

    “The only difference is that one rock is shaped in a way people have associated with biology, and sure enough, those rocks are the ones that seem to preserve the biosignatures, at least in the Green River,” she said.

    See the full article here.

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    U Kansas campus

    Since its founding, the University of Kansas has embodied the aspirations and determination of the abolitionists who settled on the curve of the Kaw River in August 1854. Their first goal was to ensure that the new Kansas Territory entered the union as a free state. Another was to establish a university.

    Nearly 150 years later, KU has become a major public research and teaching institution of 28,000 students and 2,600 faculty on five campuses (Lawrence, Kansas City, Overland Park, Wichita, and Salina). Its diverse elements are united by their mission to educate leaders, build healthy communities, and make discoveries that change the world.

    A member of the prestigious Association of American Universities since 1909, KU consistently earns high rankings for its academic programs. Its faculty and students are supported and strengthened by endowment assets of more than $1.44 billion. It is committed to expanding innovative research and commercialization programs.

    KU has 13 schools, including the only schools of pharmacy and medicine in the state, and offers more than 360 degree programs. Particularly strong are special education, city management, speech-language pathology, rural medicine, clinical child psychology, nursing, occupational therapy, and social welfare. Students, split almost equally between women and men, come from all 50 states and 105 countries and are about 15 percent multicultural. The University Honors Program is nationally recognized, and KU has produced 26 Rhodes Scholars, more than all other Kansas schools combined.

  • richardmitnick 2:28 pm on September 22, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , International Innovation, ,   

    From International Innovation- ” Life in the cosmos: Seth Shostak” 

    International Innovation


    SETI Seth Shostak
    Seth Shostak

    What is it about astronomy that captivates you?

    I find astronomy captivating, not only because it deals with huge and imposing celestial objects that have existed for billions of years, but it also answers big questions, questions that everybody, no matter where they live, might ask. Where did the Universe come from? Where is it going? What’s out there? For this reason, it’s a privilege to work in this field.

    As the only organisation addressing the full range of disciplines investigating life in the Universe, what is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute’s mission?

    The Institute’s mission is to research life in the cosmos; it’s that simple. We’re not only looking for intelligent life forms – which is the purpose of the SETI experiments – we’re also looking for the existence of microbes closer to Earth, for example, on Mars or on some of the moons surrounding Saturn or Jupiter. There are more than half a dozen locations in our own solar system where life could exist, or where it could have once existed, with Mars being one of the favourites.

    Our work also involves investigating how life started on Earth, because this could give us some indication of how it might have started elsewhere, as well as finding exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – that are possible habitats for life.

    When I joined the SETI Institute in 1991, the majority of its efforts were focused on radio SETI, which was by far its biggest project. However, today, 95 per cent of our scientists are working on what’s called astrobiology, looking for evidence of life on Mars, Jupiter, Saturn’s moons, etc. The Institute’s emphasis has greatly shifted.

    Could you share examples of R&D projects that are currently underway at the SETI Institute?

    In the astrobiology realm, there are around a dozen researchers studying the history of Mars. They are seeking to answer questions such as whatthe planet may have looked like 4 billion years ago and whether there was water on it. Today, Mars is cold and extremely dry – a terrible place for supporting life – but it wasn’t always so. The question is whether it could have supported life at one point. It’s certainly possible that we’ll find microbes there, so there is a lot of hardware roaming around the surface of Mars and orbiting the planet in an attempt to find out more about its history.

    Other researchers here are studying asteroids and meteors to find out whether they brought ingredients for life to Earth. If this is the case, it’s possible the same has happened to other planets. Similarly, a group is researching Jupiter and Saturn’s moons for water, and consequently life. We also have a team working on the New Horizons mission, which has just flown by Pluto. In fact, one of our senior research scientists, Dr Mark Showalter, found two of Pluto’s moons.

    Another important project for our astrobiologists is the search for exoplanets. We’re heavily involved with NASA’s Kepler Mission and that particular effort has found over 4,000 planets orbiting stars, some of which appear to be similar to Earth. We are also planning a large survey of dim stars, which are smaller than the Sun, because these might have habitable planets orbiting them. Finally, we’re making improvements to our equipment; for example, building new radio receivers.


    As part of a new trend in radio astronomy, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) uses a large number of small dishes (LNSD) array to simultaneously survey numerous SETI targets. How does the ATA work and what are the key advantages of this approach?

    The ATA uses 42 relatively small antennas, which are 20 feet in diameter. This differs from past approaches in that radio telescopes built in the 1960s and 1970s used the largest possible antennas. While bigger antennas are able to receive more cosmic static and fainter signals, they are far more expensive to build. Thanks to advances in electronics, however, it’s now possible to connect a lot of small antennas together to achieve the same performance as one big antenna, only for a lot less money. Not only that, but small antennas can scan large swathes of the sky much more quickly than large antennas.

    Can you summarise the Institute’s most significant achievements to date?

    Our planetary discoveries have certainly made the headlines. For example, the planet Kepler 452b is 1,400 light-years away and orbits a star that is just like the Sun. This planet could be Earth’s cousin in that it’s a little bit bigger than Earth and its year is 385 days long rather than 365 days. Another planet, which is similar in size to Jupiter, was found by one of our astronomers around a nearby star. This planet was found using a ground-based telescope, which isn’t usually possible.

    Another significant achievement is the New Horizons mission. It took New Horizons almost ten years to arrive at Pluto, and the team working on this project didn’t know whether the spacecraft would actually make it or if there would be any data to collect at the end of its journey. It has been wonderfully successful, however, and we’ll be continuing to receive data for the next year and a half.

    In terms of the ATA, we haven’t found a signal yet, but the speed of our search is continually increasing. I have bet everyone a Starbucks coffee that we’ll find ET within 20 years. I may have to buy a lot of coffee, but there’s hope!

    What are the greatest challenges facing signal detection technology and how can the Center help to overcome these issues?

    One of the biggest challenges we face is funding because this directly affects what we can achieve and the types of equipment we can develop. The astrobiologists benefit from NASA funding but all of the Institute’s SETI experiments are privately funded. There are a number of approaches we could adopt to speed up our research; for example, the technology developed for video games uses specialised hardware that can complete computational tasks very quickly. The technical challenges associated with doing this could certainly be solved. When I bet people a cup of Starbucks coffee that we’re going to find ET, this assumes that we can develop the equipment necessary to greatly speed up our work – and this is possible if we have the funds.

    What more can be done to attract support from funding bodies and further engage the public?

    We get a lot of media attention and the public is interested in what we do. Indeed, we even have the attention of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology in congress, where I testified about a year ago. I would say the public is aware of what we’re doing but what they don’t know is that we can’t do very much because of funding issues. Communicating that message would enable us to have a decent chance of success; if we can build the right equipment we might be able to find ET.

    Can you reveal what the future holds for the Institute?

    I’m very optimistic about the future because this really is a special time in history. We know so much more about astronomy and the planets orbiting other stars than we did when I was a kid, or even twenty-odd years ago. Now we know what’s out there, we have the ability to build equipment that could, in principle, find proof of life, whether in our solar system or somewhere else in space. This is the first time we can say this.

    I think the public recognises this at some level. Some people will have read about planets orbiting other stars or water on Mars, and it may occur to them that this could be the generation that finds extraterrestrial life. It’s rather like being alive at the end of the 15th Century when people were finally able to build wooden ships that could cross the ocean, and that rapidly changed the world as they knew it.


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  • richardmitnick 11:33 am on August 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Astrobiology, ,   

    From astrobio.net: “As Ice Age ended, greenhouse gas rise was lead factor in melting of Earth’s glaciers” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Aug 23, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    Improved dating methods reveal that the rise in carbon dioxide levels was the primary cause of the simultaneous melting of glaciers around the globe during the last Ice Age. The new finding has implications for rising levels of man-made greenhouse gases and retreating glaciers today. Courtesy: NSF

    A fresh look at some old rocks has solved a crucial mystery of the last Ice Age, yielding an important new finding that connects to the global retreat of glaciers caused by climate change today, according to a new study by a team of climate scientists.

    For decades, researchers examining the glacial meltdown that ended 11,000 years ago took into account a number of contributing factors, particularly regional influences such as solar radiation, ice sheets and ocean currents.

    But a reexamination of more than 1,000 previously studied glacial boulders has produced a more accurate timetable for the pre-historic meltdown and pinpoints the rise in carbon dioxide – then naturally occurring – as the primary driving factor in the simultaneous global retreat of glaciers at the close of the last Ice Age, the researchers report in the journal Nature Communications.

    “Glaciers are very sensitive to temperature. When you get the world’s glaciers retreating all at the same time, you need a broad, global reason for why the world’s thermostat is going up,” said Boston College Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Jeremy Shakun. “The only factor that explains glaciers melting all around the world in unison during the end of the Ice Age is the rise in greenhouse gases.”

    The researchers found that regional factors caused differences in the precise timing and pace of glacier retreat from one place to another, but carbon dioxide was the major driver of the overall global meltdown, said Shakun, a co-author of the report “Regional and global forcing of glacier retreat during the last deglaciation.”

    “This is a lot like today,” said Shakun. “In any given decade you can always find some areas where glaciers are holding steady or even advancing, but the big picture across the world and over the long run is clear – carbon dioxide is making the ice melt.”

    While 11,000 years ago may seem far too distant for a point of comparison, it was only a moment ago in geological time. The team’s findings fix even greater certainty on scientific conclusions that the dramatic increase in manmade greenhouse gases will eradicate many of the world’s glaciers by the end of this century.

    “This has relevance to today since we’ve already raised CO2 by more than it increased at the end of the Ice Age, and we’re on track to go up much higher this century — which adds credence to the view that most of the world’s glaciers will be largely gone within the next few centuries, with negative consequences such as rising sea level and depleted water resources,” said Shakun.

    The team reexamined samples taken from boulders that were left by the retreating glaciers, said Shakun, who was joined in the research by experts from Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

    Each boulder has been exposed to cosmic radiation since the glaciers melted, an exposure that produces the isotope Beryllium-10 in the boulder. Measuring the levels of the isotope in boulder samples allows scientists to determine when glaciers melted and first uncovered the boulders.

    Scientists have been using this process called surface exposure dating for more than two decades to determine when glaciers retreated, Shakun said. His team examined samples collected by multiple research teams over the years and applied an improved methodology that increased the accuracy of the boulder ages.

    The team then compared their new exposure ages to the timing of the rise of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, a development recorded in air bubbles taken from ice cores. Combined with computer models, the analysis eliminated regional factors as the primary explanations for glacial melting across the globe at the end of the Ice Age. The single leading global factor that did explain the global retreat of glaciers was rising carbon dioxide levels in the air.

    “Our study really removes any doubt as to the leading cause of the decline of the glaciers by 11,000 years ago – it was the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Shakun.

    Carbon dioxide levels rose from approximately 180 parts per million to 280 parts per million at the end of the last Ice Age, which spanned nearly 7,000 years. Following more than a century of industrialization, carbon dioxide levels have now risen to approximately 400 parts per million.

    “This tells us we are orchestrating something akin to the end of an Ice Age, but much faster. As the amount of carbon dioxide continues to increase, glaciers around the world will retreat,” said Shakun.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 11:22 am on August 9, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, , , E.T.,   

    From Daily Galaxy: “New Advances in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life –‘Will It Be Inconceivable to Us?'” 

    Daily Galaxy
    The Daily Galaxy

    August 09, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    No image credit

    A thin layer near the surface of Earth is teeming with life of huge diversity: from micro-organisms to plants and animals, and even intelligent species. Up to now, this forms the only known sample of life in the Universe. We now readily accept that the laws and concepts of physics and chemistry apply throughout the cosmos. Is there a general biology as well: is there life beyond Earth?
    With the Sun just about half-way through its life-time, humankind as we know it is likely to constitute a rather short transient episode, and advanced extra-terrestrial life might be inconceivable to us in its complexity, just as human life is to amoebae.

    Pinpoints of light in the night sky have probably always made humankind speculate about the existence of other worlds, but the presence of planets orbiting stars other than the Sun has become a proven reality only within the last 15 years. While the vast majority of the more than 450 [number is far larger] extra-solar planets that are known to date are gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, some spectacular discoveries of about 20 planets of less than 10 Earth masses have already indicated that rocky planets with conditions suitable to harbour life are probably rather common.

    One of the big unknowns is how likely it is for life to emerge once all conditions are right. There is no lack of its building blocks; the number of molecules fundamental to Earth’s biochemistry that have already been found in the interstellar medium, planetary atmospheres and on the surfaces of comets, asteroids, meteorites and interplanetary dust particles is surprisingly large. Giant “factories”, where complex molecules are being synthesised, appear to make carbonaceous compounds ubiquitous in the Universe.

    If the genesis of life arises from chemistry with a high probability, one might speculate whether this process occurred more than once on Earth itself, leading to the existence of a terrestrial “shadow biosphere” with a distinct Tree of Life. Moreover, there are several other promising targets within the Solar System, namely Mars, Europa, Enceladus, and, for biochemistry based on a liquid other than water, Titan. Evidence for life is not easy to gather; any chemical footprint needs to be unambiguously characteristic, and to exclude an abiogenic origin. The most powerful probe would result from returning a sample to a laboratory on Earth.

    The year 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the first search for radio signals originating from other civilizations and up to now all “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” (SETI) experiments have provided a negative result.

    Allen Telescope Array
    SETI Institut’s Allen Telescope Array

    SETI@home screensaver
    SETI@home massive personal computer project

    However these have probed only up to about 200 light-years distant, whereas the center of the Milky Way is 25,000 light-years away from us. And, even if there is no other intelligent life in the Milky Way, it could still be hosted in another of the remaining hundreds of billions of other galaxies.

    Advanced efforts are now on the drawing board or already underway for the further exploration of the Solar System and the detection of biomarkers in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, while searches for signals of extra-terrestrial intelligence are entering a new era with the deployment of the next generation of radio telescopes.

    With the detection of extra-terrestrial life being technically feasible, one needs to address whether perceived societal benefits create an imperative to search for it, or whether such an endeavour may rather turn out to be a threat to our own existence.

    Evolutionary convergence, as seen in the biological history on Earth, suggests that the limited number of solutions to sensory and social organizational problems will make alien civilizations at a comparable stage of evolution not look too different from our own. As historical examples indicate, meeting a civilization similar to ours might actually turn into a disaster.

    Rather than aliens invading Earth, realistically expected detection scenarios will involve microbial organisms and/or extra-terrestrial life at a safe distance that prevents physical contact. As far as exploring other lifeforms is concerned, any applied strategy must exclude biological contamination – not only to protect ourselves, but also to support cosmic biodiversity. No legally enforceable procedures are in place yet, and a broad dialogue on the development of a societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life is required.

    The search for life elsewhere is nothing but a search for ourselves, where we came from, why we are here, and where we will be going. It encompasses many, if not all, of the fundamental questions in biology, physics, and chemistry, but also in philosophy, psychology, religion and the way in which humans interact with their environment and each other. The question of whether we are alone in the Universe still remains unanswered, with no scientific evidence yet supporting one possible outcome or the other. If, however, extra-terrestrial life does exist, an emerging new age of exploration may well allow living generations to witness its detection.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:59 am on August 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Astrobiology, ,   

    From NASA Astrobiology: “Researchers Use ‘Seafloor Gardens’ to Switch on Light Bulb” 



    NASA Astrobiology Institute

    Aug. 5, 2015
    Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

    This photo simulation shows a laboratory-created “chemical garden,” which is a chimney-like structure found at bubbling vents on the seafloor. Some researchers think life on Earth might have got its start at structures like these billions of years ago, partly due to their ability to transfer electrical currents — an essential trait of life as we know it. The battery-like property of these chemical gardens was demonstrated by linking several together in series to light an LED (light-emitting diode) bulb. In this photo simulation, the bulb is not really attached to the chimney.
    The chimney membranes are made of iron sulfides and iron hydroxides, geologic materials that conduct electrons. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    One of the key necessities for life on our planet is electricity. That’s not to say that life requires a plug and socket, but everything from shrubs to ants to people harnesses energy via the transfer of electrons — the basis of electricity. Some experts think that the very first cell-like organisms on Earth channeled electricity from the seafloor using bubbling, chimney-shaped structures, also known as chemical gardens.

    In a new study, researchers report growing their own tiny chimneys in a laboratory and using them to power a light bulb. The findings demonstrate that the underwater structures may have indeed given an electrical boost to Earth’s very first life forms.

    A laboratory-created “chemical garden” made of a combination of black iron sulfide and orange iron hydroxide/oxide is shown in this photo. Chemical gardens are a nickname for chimney-like structures that form at bubbling vents on the seafloor. Some researchers think that life may have originated at structures like these billions of years ago.

    “These chimneys can act like electrical wires on the seafloor,” said Laurie Barge of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, lead author of a new paper on the findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition. “We’re harnessing energy as the first life on Earth might have.”

    This image from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean shows a collection of limestone towers known as the “Lost City.” Alkaline hydrothermal vents of this type are suggested to be the birthplace of the first living organisms on the ancient Earth.
    Credits: D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington

    The findings are helping researchers put together the story of life on Earth, starting with the first chapter of its origins. How life first took root on our nascent planet is a topic riddled with many unanswered chemistry questions. One leading theory for the origins of life, called the alkaline vent hypothesis, is based on the idea that life sprang up underwater with the help of warm, alkaline (as opposed to acidic) chimneys.

    Chimneys naturally form on the seafloor at hydrothermal vents. They range in size from inches to tens of feet (centimeters to tens of meters), and they are made of different types of minerals with, typically, a porous structure. On early Earth, these chimneys could have established electrical and proton gradients across the thin mineral membranes that separate their compartments. Such gradients emulate critical life processes that generate energy and organic compounds.

    “Life doesn’t want to get electrocuted, but needs just the right amount of electricity,” said Michael Russell of JPL, a co-author of the study. “This new experiment confirms what that amount of electricity is — just under a volt.” Russell first proposed the alkaline vent hypothesis in 1989, and even predicted the existence of alkaline vent chimneys more than a decade before they were actually discovered in the Atlantic Ocean and dubbed “The Lost City.”

    Previously, researchers at the University of Tokyo and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology recorded electricity in “black smoker” vent chimneys in the Okinawa Trough in Japan. Black smokers are acidic — and hotter and harsher — than alkaline vents.

    The new study demonstrates that laboratory chimneys similar to alkaline vents on early Earth had enough electricity to do something useful — in this case power an LED (light-emitting diode) light bulb. The researchers connected four of the chemical gardens, submerged in iron-containing fluids, to turn on one light bulb. The process took months of patient laboratory work by Barge and Russell’s team, with the help of an undergraduate student intern at JPL, Yeghegis “Lily” Abedian.

    “I remember when Lily told me the light bulb had turned on. It was shocking,” said Barge (while admitting she likes a good pun).

    The scientists hope to do the experiment again using different materials for their laboratory chimneys. In the current study, they made chimneys of iron sulfide and iron hydroxide, geological materials that can conduct electrons. Future experiments can assess the electrical potential of additional materials thought to have been present in Earth’s early oceans and hydrothermal vents, such as molybdenum, nickel, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

    “With the right recipe, maybe one chimney alone will be able to light the LED – or instead, we could use that electrochemical energy to power other reactions,” said Barge. “We can also start simulating higher temperature and pressures that occur at hydrothermal vents.”

    Materials or other energy sources thought to have been involved in the possible development of life on other planets and moons can be tested too, such as those on early Mars, or icy worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    The electrical needs of life’s first organisms are only one of many puzzles. Other researchers are trying to figure out how organic materials, such as DNA, might have assembled from scratch. The ultimate goal is to fit all the pieces together into one amazing story of life’s origins.

    The JPL research team is part of the Icy Worlds team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The Icy Worlds team is led by Isik Kanik of JPL.

    JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena for NASA.

    For more information about the NASA Astrobiology Institute, visit:


    See the full article here.

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    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

  • richardmitnick 2:08 pm on July 29, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Astrobiology, ,   

    From astrobio.net: “‘Carbon sink’ detected underneath world’s deserts” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Jul 29, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    Scientists followed the journey of water through the Tarim Basin from the rivers at the edge of the valley to the desert aquifers under the basin. They found that as water moved through irrigated fields, the water gathered dissolved carbon and moved it deep underground. Credit: Yan Li

    The world’s deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according to the new research.

    Humans add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. About 40 percent of this carbon stays in the atmosphere and roughly 30 percent enters the ocean, according to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Scientists thought the remaining carbon was taken up by plants on land, but measurements show plants don’t absorb all of the leftover carbon. Scientists have been searching for a place on land where the additional carbon is being stored—the so-called “missing carbon sink.”

    The new study suggests some of this carbon may be disappearing underneath the world’s deserts – a process exacerbated by irrigation. Scientists examining the flow of water through a Chinese desert found that carbon from the atmosphere is being absorbed by crops, released into the soil and transported underground in groundwater—a process that picked up when farming entered the region 2,000 years ago.

    Underground aquifers store the dissolved carbon deep below the desert where it can’t escape back to the atmosphere, according to the new study.

    The new study estimates that because of agriculture roughly 14 times more carbon than previously thought could be entering these underground desert aquifers every year. These underground pools that taken together cover an area the size of North America may account for at least a portion of the “missing carbon sink” for which scientists have been searching.

    “The carbon is stored in these geological structures covered by thick layers of sand, and it may never return to the atmosphere,” said Yan Li, a desert biogeochemist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Urumqi, Xinjiang, and lead author of the study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “It is basically a one-way trip.”

    Knowing the locations of carbon sinks could improve models used to predict future climate change and enhance calculations of the Earth’s carbon budget, or the amount of fossil fuels humans can burn without causing major changes in the Earth’s temperature, according to the study’s authors.

    Although there are most likely many missing carbon sinks around the world, desert aquifers could be important ones, said Michael Allen, a soil ecologist from the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of California-Riverside who was not an author on the new study.

    If farmers and water managers understand the role heavily-irrigated inland deserts play in storing the world’s carbon, they may be able to alter how much carbon enters these underground reserves, he said.

    “This means [managers] can take practical steps that could play a role in addressing carbon budgets,” said Allen.

    Researchers gathered groundwater flowing under the desert sands. The amount of carbon carried by this underground flow increased quickly when the Silk Road, which opened the region to farming, began 2,000 years ago. Credit: Yan Li

    Examining desert water

    To find out where deserts tucked away the extra carbon, Li and his colleagues analyzed water samples from the Tarim Basin, a Venezuela-sized valley in China’s Xinjiang region. Water draining from rivers in the surrounding mountains support farms that edge the desert in the center of the basin.

    The researchers measured the amount of carbon in each water sample and calculated the age of the carbon to figure out how long the water had been in the ground.

    The study shows the amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in the water doubles as it filters through irrigated fields. The scientists suggest carbon dioxide in the air is taken up by the desert crops. Some of this carbon is released into the soil through the plant’s roots. At the same time, microbes also add carbon dioxide to the soil when they break down sugars in the dirt. In a dry desert, this gas would work its way out of the soil into the air. But on arid farms, the carbon dioxide emitted by the roots and microbes is picked up by irrigation water, according to the new study.

    In these dry regions, where water is scarce, farmers over-irrigate their land to protect their crops from salts that are left behind when water used for farming evaporates. Over-irrigating washes these salts, along with carbon dioxide that is dissolved in the water, deeper into the earth, according to the new study.

    Although this process of carbon burial occurs naturally, the scientists estimate that the amount of carbon disappearing under the Tarim Desert each year is almost 12 times higher because of agriculture. They found that the amount of carbon entering the desert aquifer in the Tarim Desert jumped around the time the Silk Road, which opened the region to farming, begin to flourish.

    After the carbon-rich water flows down into the aquifer near the farms and rivers, it moves sideways toward the middle of the desert, a process that takes roughly 10,000 years.

    Any carbon dissolved in the water stays underground as it makes its way through the aquifer to the center of the desert, where it remains for thousands of years, according to the new study.

    Estimating carbon storage

    Based on the various rates that carbon entered the desert throughout history, the study’s authors estimate 20 billion metric tons (22 billion U.S. tons) of carbon is stored underneath the Tarim Basin desert, dissolved in an aquifer that contains roughly 10 times the amount of water held in the North American Great Lakes.

    The study’s authors approximate the world’s desert aquifers contain roughly 1 trillion metric tons (1 trillion U.S. tons) of carbon—about a quarter more than the amount stored in living plants on land.

    Li said more information about water movement patterns and carbon measurements from other desert basins are needed to improve the estimate of carbon stored underneath deserts around the globe.

    Allen said the new study is “an early foray” into this research area. “It is as much a call for further research as a definitive final answer,” he said.

    See the full article here.

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