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Astrobiology.
The DNA structure might not be the only nucleic acid in the universe capable of supporting life.

Nearby Disk Contains Life's Chemicals

Dec 27, 2005 - A planet forming disk located about 375 light-years from Earth has been found to contain some of the building blocks of life: acetylene and hydrogen cyanide. The chemicals were discovered around "IRS 46" using NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. When mixed with water in a laboratory, these chemicals create a soup of organic compounds, including amino acids and a DNA base called adenine.

Hopping Microrobots

Dec 9, 2005 - The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts has recently awarded a Phase II grant for a unique robot design that could hop across the surface of Mars. An array of these tiny robots could be deployed on Mars, coordinating with one another like a swarm of insects. Dr. Penelope Boston speaks to Astrobiology Magazine about the research and future potential for this direction of robotic exploration.

M-Class Dwarfs Could Be Good For Life After All

Nov 17, 2005 - More than half the stars in our galaxy are small, dim M-class stars. Until now, researchers looking for extraterrestrial civilizations have passed over them, since they probably don't give off enough light to support life. But SETI researchers now think that they might be good candidates after all. A planet in orbit around an M-class star would have billions and billions of years orbiting its slow-burning star for life to evolve.

Lichen Can Survive in Space

Nov 9, 2005 - Scientists have found that hardy bacteria can survive a trip into space, and now the list of natural astronauts includes lichen. During a recent experiment by ESA, lichen astronauts were placed on board the Foton-M2 rocket and launched into space where they were exposed to vacuum, extreme temperatures and ultraviolet radiation for 14.6 days. Upon analysis, it appears that the lichens handled their spaceflight just fine, in fact, they're so hardy, it's possible they could survive on the surface of Mars.

Methane Producing Bacteria Found in the Desert

Nov 2, 2005 - Researchers have discovered methane-producing microbes in some of the most inhospitable deserts here in Earth, bolstering the theory that methane detected in the Martian atmosphere was caused by life. The scientists collected soil samples near the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert. They added a growth medium to the soil, and detected methane gas being released. This isn't conclusive evidence of life on Mars, but it helps make the case that microbial life can and might exist on the Martian surface.

Where is Everybody?

Oct 19, 2005 - We live in a big galaxy with billions of stars. So, where is everybody? In his classic equation, Frank Drake developed a formula that could calculate the number of intelligent alien species in our galaxy - there should be many civilizations out there. But the Fermi Paradox says, if there are so many alien species, why haven't we met them? Steven Soter has written an article for Astrobiology Magazine that runs tries to get to the bottom of this contradiction.

Life's Building Blocks are Common in Space

Oct 12, 2005 - NASA researchers have found that many of the basic building blocks for life here on Earth are common throughout the Universe. Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, the researchers observed that complex organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are everywhere they looked: in the Milky Way and in the most distant observable galaxies. Most of these molecules contain nitrogen, which is the key requirement for life.

Successful Test of Microbe Detector

Oct 5, 2005 - Members of the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) are working on devices that could detect life on the surface of Mars. But first, they're testing their equipment and methods here on Earth. The team analyzed samples of ice inside blue ice vents in a frozen volcano in Norway, and detected living and fossilized microbiota. Ecosystems of bacteria like this could live huddled around areas of relative warmth on the surface of Mars, and future rovers could detect them.

Let's Find Life

Sep 14, 2005 - A recent conversation on the Bad Astronomy/Universe Today forum got me thinking. Member "parallaxicity" wanted to know where the next generation of unmanned probes should be sent. Should we investigate Europa, and dig through its icy skin? Or what about building a blimp that could float in Titan's thick atmosphere analyzing the surface in incredible detail? Let me just wipe the drool from my chin; some of these missions would be so cool. But you know, I'll have to take a pass. Right now, I think we need to focus on one thing...

Building Life from Star-Stuff

Sep 5, 2005 - There's a long chain of events that led from the collapse of our local cloud of gas and dust to the evolution of life here on Earth. Exactly how each of these steps unfolded is still a bit of a mystery, but scientists know that a few atomic combinations were necessary: water, and organic compounds containing carbon. Dying stars are the source for this carbon, which they belch out, creating a kind of carbon soot. From there, this soot is blasted by intense radiation to create more than 100 different molecules, including fatty acids and simple sugars.

Proof of Life?

Aug 22, 2005 - This is part 2 of an edited transcript of a presentation given by Pamela Conrad, a NASA astrobiologist who has been travelling to the ends of the Earth to study the extremes of life. In this second part, Conrad continues her explanation of how studying cold deserts here on Earth can aid the search for life in our Solar System. Part 1 is available here.

The Ends of the Earth

Aug 18, 2005 - Pamela Conrad is an astrobiologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She recently gave a lecture explaining how to searching cold deserts on Earth will help scientists understand environments that life could be hiding in the rest of the Solar System. The following article is the first part of an edited transcript of her presentation.

ZoŽ Heads Back to the Desert to Search for Life

Aug 11, 2005 - Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and NASA are preparing to head back to Chile's Atacama desert to search for evidence of life with ZoŽ, an autonomous solar-powered rover. During this third trial, ZoŽ will travel 180 km (112 miles) across the desert, seeking micro-organisms. Researchers have chosen Atacama because it's one of the driest places on Earth, and one of the best analogs for finding life on Mars. This time around, it'll build a 3D map of soil to show how populations of bacteria cluster together.

Ingredients of Life 10 Billion Light-Years Away

Jul 29, 2005 - Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered organic molecules in galaxies more than 10 billion years light-years away. This means these organic molecules - considered the building blocks of life - were present when the Universe was only a few billion years old. Spitzer found the molecules in starburst galaxies which are going through intense star formation. This means that life has had a long opportunity to gain a foothold in the Universe.

Martian Fossil Finder in the Works

Jul 28, 2005 - NASA engineers are working on a new instrument that could peer through rock and dirt on Mars to see evidence of life under the surface. The Neutron/Gamma ray Geologic Tomography (NUGGET) would be wielded by a Martian rover, and aimed at suspicious rocks. By releasing a focused beam of neutrons, some of atoms in the target rock will capture them and give off a characteristic gamma ray signature, measurable by the instrument. Ancient fossils embedded in the rock would be revealed by their chemicals.

Melt Through the Ice to Find Life

Jul 19, 2005 - Scientists can tell us what our climate on Earth was like in past by examining ice cores taken from glaciers. Tiny bubbles of air are trapped in the ice and maintain a historical record of ancient atmospheres. The effects of life make their mark in these ice samples as well. What if you examined the icecaps on Mars, or the layers of ice on Europa? NASA is considering a proposal for a small spacecraft that would land on Mars or Europa and melt its way throught the ice, collecting data as it descended, searching for clues about the presence of life.

Cyborg Astrobiologist Could Help Astronauts Find Life on Mars

Jul 19, 2005 - When humans first step onto the surface of Mars in the coming decades, they'll be like kids in a candy store; so many rocks to turn over or chip away at. Is that discoloured patch algae? A team of Spanish engineers are working on a Cyborg Astrobiologist that could help observe the landscape with a video camera, see what the astronauts see, and suggest places that might be interesting for further study. Larry Klaes reports on this interesting new technology, but he thinks robots could use a system like this even sooner.

Few planets Will Have Time to Form Complex Life

Jun 20, 2005 - Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? This question continues to puzzle scientists, but now Professor David Catling at Bristol University thinks that significant oxygen in the atmosphere and oceans of a distant planet are required for complex organisms to evolve. The fact that it took almost 4 billion years here on Earth means that other planets might not have a lot of time to evolve complex life. Since our Sun still has another 4 billion years before it dies, life has time to flourish, but planets around other, more short-lived stars might not be so lucky.

Mapping Life on Earth Could Predict Finding it on Mars

May 11, 2005 - A researcher from Washington University in St. Louis is developing techniques that will help understand how early life developed and diverged here on Earth, to help predict where and what form it might take on Mars. Carrine Blank has traced the genetic relationships between different classes of bacteria, and determined when they broke away from each other to evolve into distinct organisms. These patterns of divergence have happened in several places on Earth, so it's possible they happened on Mars too.

Did Life Arrive Before the solar system Even Formed?

May 4, 2005 - The theory of panspermia proposes that life really gets around, jumping fron planet to planet - or even from star to star. Life might be everywhere! Assuming this is true, how do single-celled bacteria make the journey through the vacuum of space? Easy, they use chunks of rock as space ships, in a process called lithopanspermia. And now, researchers from Princeton and the University of Michigan think that life carrying rocks might have been right there at the beginning of our solar system, keeping their tiny astronauts safe and sound, frozen in statis until the planets formed and the right conditions let them thaw out, stretch their proteins, and begin a process leading from microbe to mankind.

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