News Article | May 9, 2017
MESA, Arizona—Since the dawn of the space age NASA and other agencies have spent billions of dollars to reconnoiter Mars—assailing it with spacecraft flybys, photo-snapping orbiters and landers nose-diving onto its surface. The odds are good, many scientists say, for the Red Planet being an extraterrestrial address for alien life—good enough to sustain decades’ worth of landing very expensive robots to ping it with radar, zap it with lasers, trundle across its terrain and scoop up its dirt. Yet against all odds (and researchers’ hopes for a watershed discovery), Mars remains a poker-faced world that holds its cards tight. No convincing signs of life have emerged. But astrobiologists continue to, quite literally, chip away at finding the truth. As the search becomes more heated (some would say more desperate), scientists are entertaining an ever-increasing number of possible explanations for Martian biology as a no-show. For example, could there be a “cover up” whereby the harsh Martian environment somehow obliterates all biosignatures—all signs of past or present life? Or perhaps life there is just so alien its biosignatures are simply unrecognizable to us, hidden in plain view. Of course, the perplexing quest to find life on Mars may have a simple solution: It’s not there, and never was. But as the proceedings of this year’s Astrobiology Science Conference held here in April made clear, life-seeking scientists are not giving up yet. Instead, they are getting more creative, proposing new strategies and technologies to shape the next generation of Mars exploration. Talk about looking for Martians and you inevitably talk about water, the almost-magical liquid that sustains all life on Earth and seems to have served as an indispensable kick-starter for biology in our planet’s deepest past. “It all started out with ‘follow the water;’ not necessarily ‘follow the life’…but ‘follow one of the basic requirements for living systems,’” says Arizona State University geologist Jack Farmer, referring to NASA’s oft-repeated mantra for Martian exploration. “There are many indications of water on Mars in the past, perhaps reservoirs of water in the near subsurface as well,” he says. “But what is the quality of that water? Is it really salty—too salty for life?” Without liquid water, Farmer points out, one would naively think organisms cannot function. The reality may be more complex: on Earth, some resilient organisms such as tardigrades can enter a profound, almost indefinite state of hibernation when deprived of moisture, preserving their desiccated tissues but neither growing nor reproducing. It is possible, Farmer says, that Martian microbes could spend most of their time as inert spores “waiting for something good to happen,” only springing to life given the right and very rare conditions. Certain varieties of Earthly “extremophiles”—microbes that live at extremes of temperature, pressure, salinity and so on—exhibit similar behavior. Farmer says there is as yet no general consensus about the best way to go about life detection on the Red Planet. This is due in no small part to the runaway pace of progress in biotechnology, which has led to innovations such as chemistry labs shrunken down to fit on a computer chip. These technologies “have been revolutionizing the medical field, and have now started to enter into concepts for life detection on Mars,” he explains. Things move so fast that today’s best technology for finding Martian biology may be tomorrow’s laughably obsolete dead-end. But no matter how sophisticated a lab on a chip might be, it won’t deliver results if it is not sent to the right place. Farmer suspects that seriously seeking traces of life requires deep drilling on Mars. “I basically think we’re going to have to gain access to the subsurface and look for the fossil record,” he explains. But discovering a clear, unambiguous fossil biosignature on Mars would also raise a red flag. “We probably would approach the future of Mars exploration—particularly accessing habitable zones of liquid water in the deep subsurface—more cautiously, because life could still be there. So planetary protection would be taken very seriously,” he says. (“Planetary protection” is the term scientists commonly use for precautions to minimize the chance of biological contamination between worlds. Think of it not so much in terms of bug-eyed aliens running rampant on Earth but of billion-dollar robots finding “Martians” that prove to only be hardy bacterial hitchhikers imported from our own world). Like-minded about deep diving on Mars is Penelope Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency’s Ames Research Center. “That’s my bias,” she says. “Given Mars’ current state, with all the challenging surface manifestations of dryness, radiation and little atmosphere, the best hope for life still extant on Mars is subsurface.” The subsurface, she says, might also offer better chances of preserving past life—that is, of fossils, even if only of single-celled organisms. The planet’s depths hold the potential for harboring liquid water under certain circumstances, Boston thinks. But how far down might that water be? “I suspect it’s pretty far…and how we get to it, that’s a whole other kettle of fish,” she says. Over the years scientists have estimated the average depth of the planet’s possible liquid reservoirs as anywhere between tens of meters to kilometers. Then again, recent observations from orbiters have revealed mysterious dark streaks that seasonally flow down the sunlit sides of some Martian hillsides and craters. These “recurring slope lineae” could conceivably be brines of liquid water fed by aquifers very close to the surface, some researchers say. Such lingering uncertainties emerge from the indirect and scattered nature of our studies of Mars, and ensure that any argument for life there is based solely on circumstantial information, Boston notes. “Each individual piece of evidence is, on its own merits, weak,” she says. Only by amassing a diverse suite of independent measurements can a well-built case for life on Mars be made, she says: “In my opinion, we can’t make that strong case unless we push to do all of those measurements on exactly the same precise spot. We don’t do that because it’s very difficult, but it’s something to aspire to.” Despite decades of sending costly hardware to Mars, Boston believes that what is still missing is a sense of harmony between instruments, allowing them to work together to support a search for alien life. “I think that the precise requirements of a really robust claim of life at the microscopic scale require us to push on further,” she notes. Attendees at the astrobiology meeting in Arizona showcased an assortment of high-tech devices for next-generation exploration, ranging from microfluidic “life analyzers” and integrated nucleic acid extractors for studying “Martian metagenomics” to exquisitely sensitive, miniaturized organic chemistry labs for spotting tantalizing carbon compounds and minerals at microscopic scales. Missing from the mix, however, was any solid consensus on how these and other tools could all work together to provide a slam-dunk detection of life on Mars. Some scientists contend a new kind of focus is sorely needed. Perhaps the pathway to finding any Martians lurking in the planet’s nooks and crannies is to learn where exactly on Mars those potentially life-nurturing niches exist, and how they change over the course of days, months and years rather than over eons of geologic time. That is, to find homes for extant life on Mars today, researchers should probably not just be studying the planet’s long-term climate but also its day-to-day weather. “Right now we’re sort of shifting gears. Once you’ve found out that a planet is habitable, then the next question is, ‘Was there life?’—so it’s a completely different ball game,” says Nathalie Cabrol, director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute. “On Mars you cannot look for life with the tools that have been looking for habitability of that planet,” she argues. “We should be looking for habitats and not habitable environments. You are dealing on Mars with what I call extremophile extreme environments on steroids,” she says, “and you don’t look for microbial life with telescopes from Mars orbit.” Cabrol advocates making an unprecedentedly robust, high-resolution study of environmental variability on Mars by peppering its surface with weather stations. Sooner or later telltale signs of the possible whereabouts of extant life may emerge from the resulting torrents of data. “Today’s environment on that planet is a reflection of something in the past,” she says, and planting numbers of automated stations on Mars does not need to be expensive. “This is of interest not only to astrobiology but to human exploration. The first thing you want to know is what the weather is like,” she says, adding, “Right now we’re not equipped to do this and I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to look for extant life. I’m not saying what we’re doing now is wrong. Whatever we put on the ground we are learning. But there is variability on Mars. You go up or down one meter, things change. Habitats at a microscopic level can happen at the scale of a slope. It can happen at the scale of a rock!” “I think Mars offers us the highest chance of finding life” somewhere beyond Earth, says Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a planetary scientist at Technical University of Berlin in Germany. But, like Boston and others, he maintains confirmation of life will only come from multiple “layers of proof” that have to be consistent with one another. “We really need at least four different kinds of methods,” he says. “My point is that there’s no slam-dunk. We need several instruments. You have to build a case, and right now we can do better…unless the biosignature through a microscope is waving hello.” The trouble, he adds, is that too-stringent planetary protection rules may preclude getting the evidence necessary for that proof. “We have the technology to go to places where there could be life,” he says. “But we can’t go to certain areas on Mars, like recurring slope lineae or…under patches of ice. It seems to be ridiculous.” Indeed, Schulze-Makuch speculates planetary protection may be a lost cause for Mars—or at least a misguided endeavor. It may even be that any Martian microbes are actually Earth’s long-lost cousins. Or, conversely, Mars rather than Earth is really the sole site of biogenesis in our solar system. Both scenarios are possible, considering that single-celled organisms can likely survive world-shattering impacts and the subsequent interplanetary voyages if embedded in ejected shards of rock that could fall elsewhere as meteorites. Innumerable impacts of this scale battered the solar system billions of years ago, potentially blasting biological material between neighboring worlds. On balance, Schulze-Makuch says, “the chances are higher that we are Martians.”
News Article | May 10, 2017
"We're sending selfies to Europa here tonight, folks," O'Key told those who had gathered in the Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater. "Take a moment to reach out to the cosmos and say, 'We here on Earth care.'" Sponsored by the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers, the public program featured a documentary, 3-D holographic projections, views through telescopes and what was believed to be the first opportunity to send video selfies to a moon of Jupiter that NASA scientists have identified as one of the likeliest homes of extraterrestrial life in our solar system. Zerrin Leckey, 9, was among the first to take a few deep breaths, smile, then speak into the lens of a video camera connected to a device that converts audio and visual images into flashes of laser aimed at the moon - only 37 minutes away at light speed. "Hi, Europa!" he said. "This is Zerrin on Earth. I'm turning 10." Next up was Jean Mueller, 67, a retired telescope operator at the Palomar Observatory who has discovered more than 30 comets. "I photographed everything in the sky except you, Europa," she said. "Now, I'm talking to you in person, and that's pretty nice." The casual tone of these pioneering attempts at intragalactic communication was fine with O'Key, who didn't hesitate to note the limits of the technology in the astronomy club's "Europa is Alive!" event or "the giggle factor involved in all this." It was O'Key, 63, a retired technical consultant in personal injury litigation cases, and Leonard Holmberg, 62, a retired developer of optics-based products, who put together the selfie-sender: "An instrument comprised of a video camera, a laptop computer, fiber-optics technology and a yellow laser that cost us about $400," O'Key said. "We like to think we're bringing extraterrestrial adventure to everyday people," he said. "Of course, we'd need the power of the sun to generate a coherent beam strong enough to hit Europa," Holmberg said. "But at least some of the photons in the transmissions we're sending are reaching their target. No doubt about it." The project, Holmberg said, suggests how far technology has advanced since charismatic physicist Carl Sagan popularized the possibility of making contact with extraterrestrial life. Sagan led a team that developed communications materials that were aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes launched in 1977 to make drive-by visits to planets in this solar system and then continue on to explore space. The packages included images of a nude man and woman and musical samplings, including Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." O'Key and Holmberg consider themselves "Saganites," inspired by NASA's recent announcement that Europa and Saturn's moon, Enceladus, harbor all the ingredients needed for life to evolve: heat, organic material and vast oceans of water capped by ice. "What they're doing is fine with me," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the nonprofit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute based in Mountain View, Calif. "But it's fair to say we don't know if aliens are friendly, or if they even exist. If they do, will they be cute and cuddly like the one in the movie 'E.T.,' or will they be like the Kardashians? "In that case," he continued, "we should keep a low profile. You don't want your tombstone to read: I'm responsible for the obliteration of the human race." Jim Bell, an astronomer at Arizona State University and president of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society, described the Joshua Tree effort as "delightful." "It's a testament," Bell said, "to the ability of every man nowadays to have access to technology that was only a dream a decade ago." Scientists have been searching the skies for signs of alien civilizations for decades, mostly based on the premise that they, like us, would use bursts of radio and laser light we might be able to hear or see. The SETI Institute runs an array of radio telescopes designed to act as an enormous ear capable of scanning more than a million stars over 10 billion radio frequencies. It still has not detected any signal produced by someone else out there. The Mars lander Phoenix, launched in 2007, carried recorded greetings. A year later, NASA beamed the Beatles' "Across the Universe" at the North Star, Polaris. In 2012, a now-defunct company leased a huge radio telescope in Carmel Valley, Calif., and offered to transmit personal messages and photos from Earth to various stars for free. Now, there's the astronomy club led by O'Key, who as a boy liked to shine a flashlight beam at the Earth's moon knowing it would get there in 1.2 seconds. "The only exceptional thing about our attempt to communicate with an alien world," he said, "is how easy and inexpensive it has become to give it a try." Explore further: NASA to reveal 'surprising' activity on Jupiter's moon Europa
News Article | May 23, 2017
We're not saying it's aliens, but I also can't tell you it's definitely not aliens. Late last week, astronomers around the world prepared to work through the weekend observing one of the most enigmatic stars known to humanity: KIC 8462852, better known as Tabby's Star, Boyajian's Star or the "alien megastructures star." Amateur and pro star watchers trained telescopes on the star some 1,400 light-years away, and now we're able to get an early look at those observations and take a few tiny, tentative steps toward solving the mystery of this very weird star. The alert went out on Friday that the odd dips in the brightness of the star first discovered in Kepler data via a crowdsourced effort were happening once again -- these dips have yet to be explained, giving rise to all sorts of theories, including far-out ideas like huge megastructures built by an advanced alien civilization. Astrophysicist Tabetha Boyajian, who led the citizen science project and for whom the star is named, predicted last year that the star's brightness might dip again as soon as May 2017. When her prediction began to come true last week, she notified major observatories and amateur astronomy groups via social media and other channels, and many swung their lenses in the direction of the constellation Cygnus and the mysterious star. By Sunday, we were beginning to learn more about the latest "dimming event" going on with KIC 8462852. What makes this star so bizarre is that its dips in brightness don't seem to follow any obvious patterns. When planets or even comets pass in front of their stars, it tends to happen at regular, predictable intervals and they usually block out the same amount of a star's light as the last time they made a pass. But the dips seen in the brightness of KIC 8462852 don't occur on a very tight schedule and they vary in how much they dim the star's light: anywhere from three to more than 20 percent. To make things even weirder, old observations of the star show it has also dimmed slowly over the course of the past century. So in addition to these odd short term dips where something seems to pass in front of the star, it's also getting noticeably less bright over the long term, as if someone is turning down its energy output like you might with your living room lights using a dimmer switch. We just don't see many, if any, other stars behaving this way. So back to the latest observations: by May 19, the light seen from KIC 8462853 had dropped by as much as 3 percent over a period of around 24 hours. This according to new data from the Las Cumbres Observatory in California that Boyajian discussed with fellow scientist David Kipping from Columbia University in the below livestream recorded Sunday. By Monday morning, astronomer Jason Wright (who was the first to put forward the idea that alien megastuctures could explain the unpredictable dips) noted that the dip seemed to be over and the star was returning to its normal brightness. As it turns out, the dip seen over the weekend is roughly similar to a 3 percent dip observed by the Kepler Space Telescope a few years back, leading Boyajian and others to wonder if it might repeat or follow some other sort of pattern after all. "We're still quite unsure if it is in fact a duplicate of that event, meaning that it's the same object that's passing in front of (the star). It could be a different object or even the same object that's (rotated) to have a different contrast or signature against the star," she explains. The new observations will be analyzed more rigorously over the coming days and weeks and hopefully provide some new insights into the mystery of the star. In fact, if the weird dips in brightness do follow a pattern, this could be just the beginning of the latest round of them. As Wright points out in the tweeted graph below, if this is a repeat of previous dips, then more action from Boyajian's Star is just around the corner. The black line on the graph shows Kepler data from previous dips overlaid on the multicolor data from multiple telescopes showing last week's dip. Note that if we're seeing a repeating pattern, more and deeper dips could happen this week. If that happens, then we could really begin to get to the bottom of the mystery. But for now, the new observations already provide some very interesting food for thought. If the dip seen last week is actually the shadow of something passing in front of the star on a regular basis, it's something pretty massive. In fact, Kipping estimates it would be about five times the radius of our own sun and bigger than KIC 8462853 itself. And while the odds that whatever is getting in between the star and our telescopes is artificial are still very low, that possibility still can't be ruled out. What's more, Boyajian herself (who has always been hesitant to fan the hungry flame of the alien megastructures hypothesis) notes that it appears the large object blocking the star's light could even be within the habitable zone of the solar system. "I think it's an interesting coincidence," she says. "You can imagine some Death Star blowing up a planet that was inhabited perhaps and this is the pieces of shrapnel from the planet that is orbiting around the star and blocking the light. You can imagine it, but the data doesn't quite fit the alien hypothesis perfectly. A more likely explanation might be a huge cloud of dust, perhaps from some big time colliding comets or even planets, but who knows at this point. Boyajian, for one, says she's keeping an open mind about what could be causing the weird observations of the star that now carries her name. Meanwhile, telescopes around the world will continue to keep a close eye on this very weird star, including the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, which continues to listen for signs of intelligent life from Boyajian's star. So far, any aliens that might be building a massive Dyson sphere around the star seem to be doing their work with their radios turned off, because SETI researchers have yet to pick up signs of life from the star. Technically Literate: Original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on tech, exclusively on CNET.
News Article | May 26, 2017
Saturn’s mid-sized moons are like the monsters in late-night horror movies. Smash them into tiny pieces, and they glue themselves back together as new versions of the old moons. This new finding contradicts a theory that Saturn’s rings were caused by moons colliding. All four giant planets in our solar system have rings, but Saturn’s are by far the brightest and most massive. It’s not yet clear where the material needed to form rings comes from. Last year, a study of Saturn’s moons pointed to a collision as the cause of the gas giant’s rings. Matija Cuk of the SETI Institute and colleagues found that the orbits of Tethys and Dione hadn’t changed much since the solar system formed more than 4 billion years ago. They suggested that resonant interactions of an earlier generation of moons caused a catastrophic collision just 100 million years ago that resulted in the debris that makes up Saturn’s rings. Their theory was that largest pieces of this debris then formed Tethys, Dione and Rhea, while fine particles spread out to form rings. These mid-sized moons orbit Saturn in the diffuse area beyond its rings, and as time goes on, they hoover up everything in their path, so particles that spread inward formed the present rings inside the so-called Roche limit, where tidal forces break up large objects like moons. To investigate if a collision could have caused the rings, Sébastien Charnoz and Ryuki Hyodo of the Paris Institute of Earth Physics in France modelled the event. They found that if big chunks of the moons survived this smash-up, the debris would form a single new moon so fast that particles would not drift inward to form rings. On the other hand, if the impact completely shattered both original moons, it could form two or more new moons, and “the particles would stop spreading within a few tens of years, giving them no time to spread enough to reach the Roche limit” and form the rings, says Charnoz. “The process is so efficient that 20 to 30 generations of moons could have formed,” he says. “This is an important result,” says Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a specialist in planetary rings. “Although some large moons may repeatedly reform, Saturn’s rings cannot be produced by this scenario.”
News Article | April 6, 2017
The scientist who searches for extraterrestrials According to astronomer Seth Shostak, the alien intelligences we'll likely encounter someday won't be "little grey guys with big eyeballs but machines." As senior astronomer at the SETI Institute , Seth has dedicated his scientific career to seeking out evidence of ET transmissions and using that research to educate the public about our place in the universe. Mark Frauenfelder and I interviewed Seth about hunting for aliens in this episode of For Future Reference , a new podcast from Institute for the Future: Please subscribe to For Future Reference: iTunes, RSS, Soundcloud
News Article | April 26, 2017
THE most ambitious search so far for extraterrestrial intelligence has released its first data – and there are no aliens yet. The lack of success could be explained by the result of a new approach to calculating the likelihood of detecting alien signals. This calculation suggests we might never make contact, even if extraterrestrial life is common. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been active for decades. Breakthrough Listen aims to be the largest, most comprehensive search ever. The $100 million initiative uses three of the world’s most sensitive telescopes to look for alien signals from the 1 million closest stars to Earth and the 100 closest galaxies. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute in California. “But we don’t know how many needles are there.” Breakthrough Listen team members have analysed the light from 692 stars so far. They have found 11 potential alien signals, none of which remained promising after further analysis. “It’s the beginning of a very exciting time,” says Avi Loeb at Harvard University. “But while it’s exciting, it’s still very risky. We could find nothing.” That’s exactly what an assessment by Claudio Grimaldi at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne predicts. Most methods for calculating the likelihood of detecting alien signals start with an expected number of sources. Instead, Grimaldi started with what volume of the galaxy could be reached by alien signals, a value that requires fewer assumptions about the nature and abundance of extraterrestrial life. “It’s the beginning of a very exciting time. But while it’s exciting, it’s still very risky. We could find nothing” Grimaldi assumed that signals from an extraterrestrial emitter might get weaker or be blocked as they travel, so they would only cover a certain volume of space. It’s relatively simple to calculate the probability that Earth is within that space and so able to detect the signal. “Not all signals can be visible at the same time – only those that intersect with the Earth,” says Grimaldi. He found that even if half of our galaxy was full of alien noise, the average number of signals that we would be able to detect from Earth is less than one (Scientific Reports, doi.org/b562). This implies that, even if there are lots of aliens out there, we might never be able to hear from them. But some researchers take umbrage: Grimaldi’s method still requires you to plug in numbers for how far alien signals could be detectable and how long they last – neither of which is known. “You have to make some assumptions about what the aliens are doing in all these calculations, unfortunately, and the data set that we have with alien activity is fairly sparse,” says Shostak. Our only example of intelligent life is on Earth, and there’s little reason to expect that ET resembles us. But, says Loeb, extraterrestrial signals should be no harder to find than other astronomical events. “The question of whether you can detect a signal has nothing to do with whether it’s artificial or natural, and astronomers routinely detect lots of kinds of signals,” he says. “In SETI, theory is great, but observation is the gold standard,” says Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International, which aims to send messages to extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s not difficult to think up a different signal that we would be able to detect, he says. For example, if there were alien life at the TRAPPIST-1 planets, just 40 light years away, they wouldn’t need particularly advanced technology to contact us. It seems implausible that we would miss their call. This article appeared in print under the headline “Why we might never detect alien signals”
Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: EDUCATION AND HUMAN RESOURCES | Award Amount: 415.83K | Year: 2014
This award will support the renewal the REU Site at the SETI Institute (SI), which focuses on astronomy and planetary science with a connecting theme of astrobiology. Ten student participants per year will be paired with SI scientists to conduct laboratory research at both SI and at the NASA Ames Research Center. The undergraduate students will perform detailed research into a variety of topics, including the interstellar medium, asteroids, geological activity on Mars, and spectroscopy of the outer solar system. In addition, all participants will attend tutorials by SI scientists on introductory concepts in astronomy, biology, and geology.
By offering high-quality research experiences to students at a critical stage of undergraduate education, the REU Site will contribute to increasing the nationwide pool of scientists and engineers. Participants will develop the research methods and analytical skills (mathematical, computational, and logical) necessary to process data, understand primary research, and to remain current with new developments in the field. The REU Site also has an active and highly developed plan to recruit underrepresented minorities into its program, which will expand STEM training opportunities to these groups.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: STTR | Phase: Phase I | Award Amount: 124.77K | Year: 2012
The goal of this proposed research is to advance the development of biological in situ resource utilization for NASA's space exploration programs. We plan to build a foundation to use synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms to extract metals from naturally occurring extraterrestrial regolith.We propose to create a novel growth medium designed to mimic the lunar regolith ice discovered at the south pole of the moon by the LCROSS mission. We will develop a bioleaching column for this simulant to purify metals for consumable production in space. We will characterize known biomining organisms to leach this simulant. Finally we will study the biochemical processes taking place in the leaching of the regolith to be able to improve the metabolism of these organisms in the future.In addition, will produce a database of organisms involved in biomining on Earth and the geologies and substrates that they have been found on. This database can be used as a tool to find undersampled mine sites that may contain novel organisms suitable for biomining in space.We then plan to develop a conceptual bioreactor which is designed to extract metals from regolith in space. We will perform a trade study of the mass, productivity, cost and energy requirements of such a bioreactor.Later phases of the research will involve characterization of the important enzymes involved in biomining in key organisms, adding to the limited existing knowledge of these pathways and leading to creation of a synthetic biological system for efficiently engineering them, which we will use to optimize these organisms for extracting relevant substrates in relevant space-settlement-like conditions. This further research will also include growth on Mars-like simulant regoliths, as well as improvement of the bioreactor model in a series of increasingly durable and realistic prototypes that will undergo both physical and functional testing.
Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: STELLAR ASTRONOMY & ASTROPHYSC | Award Amount: 348.47K | Year: 2013
This collaborative project combines theoretical and observational work to study circumstellar disk winds, evolution and dispersal. They will analyze high resolution optical and infrared spectra of 55 disks around stars that are at different stages of evolution in order to constrain thermochemical and 2-D hydrodynamical models of planet formation. Most of the necessary data are in hand, and new observations are planned with large optical telescopes, such as the Multiple-Mirror Telescope, Large Binocular Telescope and other observatories.
Broader impacts training undergraduate and graduate students in research and professional development of science and math teachers. The research team will also make presentations to the public, including on an episode of the SETI Institute radio show Big Picture Science.
Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: | Award Amount: 96.38K | Year: 2012
In this project, Dr. Barsony and her collaborators will conduct an observational survey to search for sub-stellar or planetary-mass objects in regions of star formation. These objects, called T-dwarfs, are relatively luminous when young, and can be detected because they exhibit broad absorption features from methane in their spectra. The research team will conduct a wide-area infrared survey to find T-dwarfs by imaging at the wavelength of the methane band and at an adjacent wavelength. Objects that are faint in the methane band are likely to be T-dwarf stars.
The research activity will have a broader educational impact through the involvement of undergraduate students in the research effort. Students will be recruited at San Francisco State University and at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), and will have the opportunity to visit the other institution in the collaboration. The detection of large numbers of T-dwarfs will help improve theories of star formation, especially in the domain between the least-massive stars and the most-massive planets.