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NASA selects ASU science teams for astrobiology research

School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty to lead one of eight projects, participate in three more


NASA has selected ASU for astrobiology research funding, including the “Planetary Systems Biochemistry” project, which combines big data, experimental and observational approaches to biosignatures, and integrating data from across the Earth system to develop new statistical frameworks for life detection. Illustration by Michael Northrop/ASU

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November 09, 2020

The NASA Astrobiology Program has announced the selection of eight new interdisciplinary research teams to inaugurate its Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR) program. The breadth and depth of the research of these teams spans the spectrum of astrobiology research, from cosmic origins and planetary system formation to the origins and evolution of life and the search for life beyond Earth.

Faculty from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration are leading one of the eight NASA-selected projects, and they are participating in an additional three more.

School of Earth and Space Exploration faculty member Sara Walker is the principal investigator of the awarded “Planetary Systems Biochemistry” team, which will be combining big data, novel high-throughput experiments and models to ultimately determine a way to quantify the universal properties of life and to predict what life should look like in diverse planetary environments. Walker’s team also includes deputy principal investigator Hyunju Kim and co-investigators Hilairy Hartnett, Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert, Michael Line, Everett Shock and Ariel Anbar.

“One of the biggest challenges we must confront in our search for life in the universe is to identify life’s universal signatures and develop quantitative tools that allow us to recognize these in alien environments,” said Walker, who is also the deputy director of ASU’s Beyond Center. “Our project will advance multivariate statistical approaches to astrobiology, combining complex systems science with big data and experiments to develop next-generation biosignatures that will provide new tools to not only recognize life as we know it, but also as we don’t know it.” Project deputy principal investigator Kim adds, "The ultimate goal of our project is to develop quantitative frameworks and rigorous mathematical tools for understanding the universal principles underlying biological systems across diverse planetary environments."  

In addition to being on the Planetary Systems Biochemistry team, Anbar is also the deputy principal investigator on a second ICAR-award project “What Life Wants: Exploring the Natural Selection of Elements,” led by principal investigator Betül Kaçar of the University of Arizona. This project seeks to understand the essential attributes of life and the ways in which they shape our notions of habitability and the search for life on other worlds.

“Our team will explore the natural selection of the chemical elements during the coevolution of life and environment on Earth, focusing on metal use in the biological nitrogen (N) cycle,” said Anbar. “We will carry out geochemical and biological investigations that involve ancient materials, experiments and modern natural systems.”

Sedimentary rocks like these from the Hamersley Basin in Western Australia, deposited billions of years ago, tell us about changing availability of metals in Earth’s oceans and will be studied by the “What Life Wants: Exploring the Natural Selection of Elements” team, which has been awarded a NASA ICAR award. Photo by Ariel Anbar/ASU

A third ICAR awarded project, “The M-dwarf Opportunity: Characterizing Nearby M-dwarf Habitable Zone Planets,” involves co-investigator and associate director of ASU's Interplanetary Initiative,  Evgenya Shkolnik . Led by Kevin Stevenson at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, the team on this project will seek to determine how best to detect biosignatures on M-dwarf planets.

"We aim to develop a holistic view to accurately assess the habitability of rocky planets in the habitable zone of M stars, including the characterization of the host stars, which affect the planet’s atmospheric formation, evolution and chemistry,” said Shkolnik. “This project is a natural next step to our longtime observational efforts to study M stars, which are the most prevalent hosts of rocky planets.”

And a fourth project, “Alien Earths: Which Nearby Planetary Systems Are Likely to Host Habitable Planets and Life?” includes co-investigator Maitrayee Bose. It is led by Daniel Apai of the University of Arizona and seeks to advance our understanding of which nearby planetary systems may harbor habitable worlds. Bose will lead cosmochemical studies of meteorites, left over from the young solar system, to help understand water delivery during the formation of planetary systems.

Additionally awarded NASA-funded teams 

  • Timothy Lyons, University of California, Riverside: "Alternative Earths – How to Build and Sustain a Detectable Biosphere."
  • Burckhard Seelig, University of Minnesota: "Emergence of a Complex Biochemical System: Evolutionary Aspects of the Path to Coded Protein Synthesis."
  • Donald Burke, University of Missouri: "Bringing RNA to Life – Emergence of Biological Catalysis."
  • Natalie Batalha, University of California, Santa Cruz: "Follow the Volatiles: Tracing Chemical Species Relevant to Habitability From Proto-planetary Disks to Exoplanet Atmospheres."

The goal of NASA’s Astrobiology Program is the study of the origins, evolution and distribution of life in the universe. The program is central to NASA’s continued exploration of our solar system and beyond, and supports research into the origin and early evolution of life, the potential of life to adapt to different environments, and the implications for life elsewhere.

ICAR is a new organizational structure for the NASA Astrobiology Program, developed over time to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving field with an expanded scope and emergent questions driven by two decades of research and discovery in astrobiology. The program supports an interdisciplinary approach to a single compelling question in astrobiology, collectively addressing the goals of the agency’s Astrobiology Strategy.

“We are excited about these additions to the astrobiology research portfolio,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a NASA press release announcing the awards. “The astrobiology community continues to grow and is increasing their contributions to planning and implementation of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate flight missions. These new teams are central to ensuring astrobiology goals are cohesively integrated into those future missions.”

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