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NASA Research Seeks To Discover If Comets Seeded Life

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Old July 16th 03, 04:22 PM
Ron Baalke
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Default NASA Research Seeks To Discover If Comets Seeded Life


Bill Steigerwald
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center July 16, 2003
(Phone: 301/286-5017)

Release: 03-74


NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will lead the effort to discover if
comets supplied the raw material for the origin of life on Earth, and if
they could do so for alien worlds, as part of its participation in NASA
Astrobiology Institute (NAI) research.

NAI selected a team of scientists led by NASA Goddard for a five-year,
multimillion-dollar research effort that will explore how organic
molecules are created in interstellar clouds and delivered to planets as
they form. The award is one of 12 new research awards announced by the
Institute June 24.

"One of the most interesting questions is also among the deepest: Where did
we come from? I'm honored to be leading a team of so many recognized
experts that will help answer this question," said Dr. Michael Mumma of
NASA Goddard, Greenbelt, Md., who is the Principal Investigator for the NAI
Goddard award.

Organic molecules contain carbon atoms and are present in all life forms
currently known to science. Simple organic molecules have been found in
interstellar clouds. Observations indicate stars and planets are formed
from interstellar cloud material when these clouds collapse under their own
gravity. Astronomers believe organic molecules become more complex
as they receive energy from the newborn star in the cloud. The new
research will combine laboratory experiments, observations with
ground-based telescopes and spacecraft, and missions to sample
comet and asteroid material to discover how organic molecules are
created in interstellar clouds and later are modified in the gas and dust
disks around young stars.These disks, called protoplanetary disks, form when
an interstellar cloud collapses.

While collapsing interstellar clouds are busy building solar systems, lumps
of ice and dust (comets) form in the cold, outer regions of the
protoplanetary disk that surrounds a newly-forming sun. "Our team will
investigate whether energetic radiation from the young star can
modify the organic chemicals before they are incorporated into comets,"
said Mumma.

Analogous to "dirty snowballs," comets trap large amounts of organic
molecules in their ices as they form from a protoplanetary disk.
Astronomers think the newly created Earth was subjected to a fierce
bombardment of comets about four billion years ago, when the
protoplanetary disk that created our solar system was thick with swarms of
newborn comets. The rain of comets was so intense it could have supplied a
large portion of the water in Earth's oceans.

"Earth's new ocean probably was dirty, because it should have been full of
organic molecules and dust particles carried to our planet by comets and
primitive meteorites," said Mumma. "We want to learn how significant their
contribution was to the genesis of life on Earth."

The NAI research led by Goddard capitalizes on the Center's strengths
in laboratory astrochemistry, planetary systems research,
interstellar, stellar, planetary, and cometary spectroscopy (analysis of
light), and spacecraft instrument development. The NAI is a virtual
institute, in which collaborations and communication of results will be
conducted by videoconferences over the Internet, as well as at scientific
conferences. Workshops at Goddard and the University of Maryland, College
Park will share results with educators and students under the Minority
Institution Astrobiology Cooperative.

The interdisciplinary team includes researchers in Earth science, space
science, and instrument development at Goddard as well as scientists from
around the country and the world. Institutions with scientific
co-investigators include the University of Maryland, College Park,
the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., the Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., the SETI institute,
Mountain View, Calif., Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., Eckerd
College, St. Petersburg, Fla., the University of Massachusetts, Amherst,
Mass., and the University of Washington, Seattle, Wash. Institutions with
scientific collaborators include the Carnegie Institution of Washington,
Washington, DC, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., the
University of California at Santa Cruz, The Catholic University of America,
Washington, DC, and Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J. International
collaborators include scientists from the University of Paris, France, and
Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands.

The new NAI research awards begin in fall 2003, when current agreements
with the NAI's 11 founding lead teams conclude. NAI team awards are for five
years, with annual reviews, at an average annual funding level of one
million dollars.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute is an international research consortium with
central offices located at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's
Silicon Valley. NASA Ames is the Agency's lead center for astrobiology,
the search for the origin, evolution, distribution and
future of life in the universe.

For more information about the NAI on the Internet, visit:



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