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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.
Astrobiology efforts at JPL are particularly geared towards planetary habitability studies. Researchers in this area at JPL are comprised of a multidisciplinary collection of scientists and technicians ranging from astrobiology through microbiology, chemistry and geochemistry to instrument engineering. The scientific methodology that has been espoused is one of a systems approach to astrobiology: integration of appropriate field and laboratory work and integration of those results into instrument development pertinent to answering mission science questions.
Selected Current Projects
Mars Science Laboratory's ChemCam will zap martian rocks to reveal chemical clues.
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)
Scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009, Mars Science Laboratory is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Mars Science Laboratory is a rover that is being designed to assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet's "habitability."
To find out, the rover would carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover would analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially "written in the rocks and soil" in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover's onboard laboratory is being designed to study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and to assess what the Martian environment was like in the past.
NASA Astrobiology Institute
Many of JPL’s scientists collaborate or have joint appointments with NASA’s Astrobiological Institute (NAI) including two recently funded interdisciplinary teams that are lead by JPL PI’s (I. Kanik and M. Allen). These teams will perform in depth studies on icy worlds of the solar system (such as Europa, and Enceladus) and explore the organic rich world of Titan to answer questions on the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth and the Universe.
Research and Development Efforts
An internally funded project, this in situ investigation into Antarctica's Lake Ellsworth reveals 6 fluorimeter band “colors” stimulated by the 224-nm laser. In this pseudo-image, wavelength-specific bands are detected as well as <2mm-sized objects in the ice core, not on the surfaces. The bands at the very top and very bottom of the images are the depth-of-field and linear-registration calibration markers.
In Situ Capability for an Astrobiology Investigations on Earth and on other planetary bodies
JPL has used both NASA HQ funded research tasks and internal research and development funds to develop instrumentation. This includes the identifications of biochemical & microbial populations in warm ice above subglacial lakes (an Europa analogue), in evaporate lake beds (an Martian analogue), and in simulated planetary environments found in the laboratory. Our research funding comes from a variety of NASA and JPL programs, including
Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets
Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development
Mars Instrument Development Program
Astrobiology: Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology
flight instrument teams
JPL Research and Technology Development
These developments will lead to new science discoveries that enable future planetary-exploration missions.