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Planetary Sciences

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Planetary habitability is at the center of astrobiology research at JPL. Researchers conduct field and lab studies in microbiology and chemistry to help them plan for future planetary exploration missions. Recently, JPL was awarded two grants from NASA's Astrobiology Institute.

Understanding the potential of other bodies in the solar system to support life is at the center of astrobiology research at JPL. Researchers conduct field and lab studies in microbiology, geochemistry and organic chemistry to help them plan for future planetary exploration missions. JPL’s unique teaming of science and engineering has fostered the laboratory’s participation on multiple teams in NASA's Astrobiology Institute, including two JPL-led teams: one studying the astrobiology of icy worlds in general and one focused on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Astrobiology efforts at JPL tend to focus on planetary habitability studies, but also extend to understanding the origin of life at deep-sea hydrothermal vents and the nature of life in extreme environments. The pool of astrobiology researchers at JPL is a multidisciplinary collection of scientists, engineers and technicians from the traditional fields of biology, chemistry and geology who now work in this interdisciplinary field. JPL espouses a scientific methodology that takes a systems approach to astrobiology: integration of field and laboratory work and inclusion of those results into instrument development pertinent to answering mission science questions.

Selected Current Projects

Curiosity self portrait
clay bearing materials
Top: A self portrait of the Curiosity rover as taken with the MAHLI microscopic imager on the robotic arm.
Bottom: Recent analysis of material at Endeavour Crater indicates clay bearing minerals.

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, named Curiosity, and the long-lived Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, are part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term robotic exploration effort at the Red Planet. Curiosity was designed to help us understand the planet's past and present habitability – to assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.

Analysis by Curiosity’s mineralogical and chemistry instruments (named CHEMIN and SAM) of the first rock drilled by the rover tell of a history in which Mars could have supported life as we know it. This sample contains clay minerals that could only have formed in water that was slightly salty, but neither too acidic nor too alkaline for life. Curiosity’s investigation of an ancient streambed displaying conglomerate rocks with embedded gravels provides compelling evidence of persistent water flow across the surface in Mars’ distant past.

On the other side of Mars, the 10-year-old Opportunity rover also continues to discovering new clues about habitable environments on ancient Mars. Recent analysis of a target named “Esperance” indicates the presence of clay-bearing materials with a composition that is higher in aluminum and silica and lower in calcium and iron then has been seen elsewhere on the planet. This is strongly suggestive of a more clement, mildly acidic conditions and a reducing, not oxidizing environment.

NASA Astrobiology Institute
Many JPL researchers collaborate or have joint appointments with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute including two interdisciplinary teams that are led by JPL-based principal investigators (Iisk Kanik and Mark Allen). These teams will perform in-depth studies of icy worlds of the solar system (such as Europa and Enceladus) and explore the organic-rich world of Titan to answer questions related to the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and the Universe.

Research and Development Efforts

In-situ capability for astrobiology investigations on Earth and on other planetary bodies
JPL has used a combination of NASA-funded research tasks and internal research and development funds to develop instrumentation for astrobiology studies. This research includes identification of biochemical & microbial populations that are present in the surface and subsurface, in extreme environments like Antarctica dry valleys and deep ocean bore holes, in evaporate lake beds (a Martian analogue), and in laboratory-created simulated planetary environments. Our research funding comes from a variety of NASA and JPL programs, including

  • NASA Astrobiology
  • Science and Technology for Exploring Planets
  • Science and Technology Instrument Development
  • Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology
  • NASA Mars Instrument Development Program
  • Flight instrument teams
  • JPL Research and Technology Development

These developments could lead to new science discoveries that can enable future planetary-exploration missions.

meteorite spectra
Spectra of a piece of the Allende meteorite, the largest carbonaceous meteorite to fall on Earth. Enabled by the advent of compact deep UV laser sources <250 nm, the methodology has been used to map the distribution of trace organics, biosignatures, and living organisms, over multiple spatial scales; from the macroscopic (cm2 – mm2) to microscopic (μm2).


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