Astrobiology research at JPL is centered around understanding the potential of other bodies in the Solar System to support life. Researchers conduct field, laboratory, and theoretical studies in mineralogy, microbiology, geochemistry and organic and inorganic chemistry to help plan for future planetary exploration missions. JPL’s unique mix of science and engineering has fostered the participation of two JPL-led teams in the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), a collaboration between multiple virtual institutes, during the previous five-year funding cycle (CAN 5; 2009-2014). One of the two JPL Teams studied the astrobiology of icy worlds, while the other focused on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The JPL Icy Worlds Team has been re-selected by NASA to continue for another five-year cycle (CAN 7, Principal Investigator: Dr. Isik Kanik; 2015-2020).
JPL Astrobiology focuses on planetary habitancy and habitability studies, and encompasses studies of the emergence of life at submarine alkaline hydrothermal vents and the nature of life in extreme environments. The pool of astrobiology researchers at JPL is an interdisciplinary-minded group of scientists, engineers, and technicians from the traditional fields of geology, microbiology, physics and chemistry, who now collaborate in this interdisciplinary field. JPL espouses a scientific method that takes a systems approach to astrobiology: integration of field, theoretical and laboratory work, and inclusion of those results into instrument development pertinent to answering mission science questions.
Selected Current Projects
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, 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 microbial life. This sample contains clay minerals that could only have formed in slightly salty water that was 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 12-year-old Opportunity rover continues to discover new clues about habitable environments on ancient Mars. Recent analysis of a target (rock) 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 than has been seen elsewhere on the planet. This is strongly suggestive of 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 led by JPL-based principal investigator Isik Kanik. This team performs in-depth studies of icy worlds of the Solar System (such as Europa and Enceladus) to answer questions related to the emergence, evolution, distribution, and future of life on Earth and elsewhere in 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 such as dry valleys and deep ocean bore holes in Antarctica, in evaporate lake beds (a Martian analog), and in laboratory-created simulated planetary environments including deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Our research funding comes from a variety of NASA and JPL programs, primarily from the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Icy Worlds), and from other NASA programs including:
- Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO)
- Maturation of Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE)
- Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR)
- Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology
- NASA Mars 2020 Instrument Development Program
- Flight instrument teams (Mars 2020 PIXL and SHERLOC)
- JPL Research and Technology Development
These developments could lead to new science discoveries that can enable future planetary exploration missions.
Paradigm shift in Emergence of Life Theory in Astrobiology at JPL
Nonequilibrium thermodynamic approaches to the emergence of life and the discovery of submarine alkaline hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean strongly support a theory being developed at JPL. This theory predicts that life would emerge on certain wet and rocky worlds as a response to the disequilibrium between their electron-rich interiors and their relatively oxidized exteriors, viz., between hydrothermal hydrogen emanating from the electron-rich interior and carbon dioxide in the oceans, and provides a basis for astrobiological exploration. The three recent covers of Astrobiology shown below, the first from the JPL group, signifies the paradigm shift.