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NASA Ames Astrogram – December 2020

December 2020 issue of Ames newsletter, the Astrogram

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Hey, Space Fans!  Remember These Cool Ames Accomplishments from 2020?

by Rachel Hoover

With many folks setting their countdown clock to 2021, we’re taking a moment to reflect on all of the stellar achievements of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley this year. What’s your favorite from our list of highlights?

1) NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy confirmed, for the first time, water on the sunlit surface of the Moon, indicating that water may be distributed across the lunar surface, and not limited to cold, shadowed places. Scientists announced SOFIA also observed warm, galactic material emitting at wavelengths of light that other telescopes could not detect, providing never-before-seen details of our galactic center. And while flying high in the atmosphere in 2019, SOFIA also found an extremely distant galaxy that is surviving a black hole’s ravenous forces by continuing to birth about 100 Sun-size stars per year.

Illustration of the galaxy called CQ4479.
Illustration of the galaxy called CQ4479.

2) NASA’s new water-hunting Moon mission, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, is propelling forward. The VIPER team passed a major programmatic milestone – preliminary design review – and conducted rigorous testing to inform the development of a number of critical components, including the wheelsheadlightssoftware, and versions of its science instruments. NASA also selected a new commercial partner, Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon in late 2023. 

NASA’s water-seeking robotic Moon rover just booked a ride to the Moon’s South Pole. COMPANY of CITY, STATE, has been selected to deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, to the Moon in 2023. During its 100-Earth-day mission, the approximately 1,000-pound rover will roam several miles and use its four science instruments to sample various soil environments in search of water ice. Its survey will help pave the way for a new era of human missions to the lunar surface and will bring us a step closer to developing a sustainable, long-term robotic and human presence on the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

Credit: NASA Ames

3) Ames thermal protection technologies, testing facilities, and expertise contributed to the successful launch and safe re-entry of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 and NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 missions.

A model of SpaceXs Crew Dragon capsule is mounted in a wind tunnel
A scaled-down model of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is mounted in a transonic wind tunnel for aerodynamic testing at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. This facility, the 11-by-11-foot Transonic Wind Tunnel, a part of the Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel complex at Ames, has played a vital role in every U.S. human spaceflight program to help ensure crew will be safe to fly.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

4) Data gathered by NASA’s retired planet-hunting mission, the Kepler space telescope, continued to yield important new findings – including the discovery that our galaxy holds an estimated 300 million potentially habitable worlds. 

Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

5) The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, attached to the belly of Perseverance, launched this summer and will arrive at Mars in February 2021. Its fiery descent, surface operations, and flight technology demonstration all will make use of contributions to the mission’s entry system, heat shield, instruments, software, and technologies tested and developed at Ames. 

Mars Helicopter
Mars Helicopter
Credit: NASA

The Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will travel to the Red Planet with the Mars 2020 rover. It will attempt controlled flight in Mars’ thin atmosphere, which may enable more ambitious missions in the future.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

6) The International Space Station was practically buzzing with activity this year. A NASA astronaut performed a series of tests with one of the three Astrobees – a free-flying robot system – to get them ready to perform tasks and run science investigations aboard the station. Astrobee’s facility ran its first guest science experiment, the Kibo-Robotic Programming Challenge, in collaboration with NASA’s partner, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The first batch of BioNutrients samples from the station returned to Earth to be analyzed so scientists can better understand how to get microorganisms in space to produce vital nutrients like those usually found in vegetables. That way, when future explorers need those nutrients, they can just drink them down. And an array of CubeSats deployed into orbit from the station, including TechEdSat-10, which featured the largest-ever exo-brake – an umbrella-like device to increase drag and take a small satellite out of orbit – as well as AzTechSat-1, which was the first spaceflight project on which NASA and the Mexican Space Agency collaborated. Whew!

astronaut Chris Cassidy with Astrobees

7) The New Horizons spacecraft found that the bright blankets of methane ice that cover Pluto’s mountains are formed through a unique process, despite bearing a striking resemblance to Earth’s snow-capped mountain chains. And speaking of striking resemblances, New Horizons’ flyby of a small object that looks a lot like a smooth, red snowman, revealed it is untouched by the usual turmoil and impacts other small objects endure. Like a time capsule of our solar system’s origins, Arrokoth could give us a look four billion years into the past and insight into our cosmic home. 

Two lobes orbiting each other, with the larger pulling parts of the smaller one towards it, creating a "neck."
A simulation of one potential formation scenario for Arrokoth’s gentle formation. The colors represent the maximum acceleration experienced by each particle, with reds indicating a greater acceleration and blues a slower acceleration.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

8) If you haven’t already, dive into the NeMO-Net video game released this year! From the comfort of home, you can embark on virtual ocean research expeditions to help map coral reefs around the world in an effort to better understand these threatened ecosystems. NeMO-Net has reached more than 300 million people since its launch on Earth Day. To date, citizen scientists have helped contribute and vet more than 75,000 detailed 3D coral classifications. NeMO-Net has more than 40,000 users in the App Store with more on the way as the team rolls out an Android version.

NeMO-Net video game

9) Aircraft play an essential role in how we study, understand, and navigate Earth. Engineers used our most powerful supercomputer to visualize how the design and shape of NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane allow it to fly faster than sound without producing loud sonic booms. Ames also helped a new solar-powered commercial unmanned aircraft system test flight technologies that could bring about a powerful way to observe our planet for days or weeks on end. The Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations project team completed training activities to learn how drones can assist emergency responders in case of natural disasters. Researchers “flew” passengers in the world’s largest flight simulator above virtual cities to help aircraft designers improve passenger ride quality and worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and industry partners to develop the breakthrough technology that would make air taxis as well as drone delivery air traffic possible, safe and efficient. NASA released a free research app to help scientists and commercial airlines study fatigue and which telltale signs could alert someone before they become unsafe while performing critical tasks. 

Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

10) Just add water! The myco-architecture project at Ames is prototyping technologies that could “grow” habitats on the Moon, Mars, and beyond out of fungi and the underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia. The project envisions future human explorers bringing a lightweight, compact habitat framework, adding water to dormant fungi that will grow while contained within the framework to avoid contaminating the Martian environment, and turn into a fully-functional human habitat.

Future astronauts might one day live in habitats that were fabricated with fungus. The revolutionary concept called Myco-architecture explores the impressive properties of fungal mycelium which is, in some ways, stronger than reinforced concrete and is capable of growing and repairing itself.

Credit: NASA

11) In the sulfur and toxin-riddled soils of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, NASA found a fungus that contains an entire ecosystem – and inside, two brand new categories of microbial life. This discovery expanded what’s known as the “tree of life” – the network of classifications that make up all known living things – and has implications for life’s ability to survive on other worlds. It could even show us how microbes are able to consume toxic junk, which could help us clean up our own messes here on Earth. 

Three green and yellow tinted bulbs in a barren landscape, with steam rising in the distance.
Pisolithus arhizus near Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
Credit: NASA Ames/Kenneth Cullings

12) Since 2000, Ames has sent dozens of biology experiments into space, and this year Ames added five more to the tally. The payloads hitched a ride on SpaceX’s 21st commercial cargo resupply mission to the space station. These missions are studying the effects of spaceflight on bone health, nervous system stem cells, eye structure and function, the formation of bacterial biofilms that can corrode stainless steel and how well disinfectants work on them, as well as how human cells respond to yeast, how yeasts change under the different environmental conditions of space, and the effectiveness of yeast drug treatments. Ames researchers also led a multinational effort to analyze a trove of space biology samples and experimental data from animal and astronaut studies. They identified what might be behind many of the human health impacts of spaceflight providing a fruitful new avenue of research into how humans can better live off-world. 


13) The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s lives and also posed challenges to teams and work at NASA. But Ames scientists with interdisciplinary expertise and the facilities they operate we able to support early-stage research to learn about the virus and assist in the global fight against the pandemic. They’re also looking into how COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandates changed the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban heat flux, and how that change contributed to a more or less healthy environment for the millions of people living there.

Heat map image with bright orange and yellow colors highlighting hot spots on the ground.
This image shows the ECOSTRESS land surface temperature variations measured on May 22, 2020 during the full lockdown period over an area centered on the Great Mall in Milpitas. The blue dots represent ground truth measurements on May 22 in large vacant parking lots. The darkish reddish shades show the highest temperatures on dark asphalt parking lots and roadways, and the yellow-greenish shades indicate lower temperatures in parklands and semi-vegetated areas. Bright white rooftops are in the middle shades.
Credit: NASA Ames/Christopher Potter

VIPER’s Many Brains are Better than One

by Rachel Hoover

If you opened up a robot vacuum, a self-driving car, or even one of NASA’s Mars rovers (which we’re definitely not recommending you do!) you’d find a bunch of processors programmed with software that serve as the robot’s “brains.” All robots have these computerized brains directing their movement and activity, but NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will be the first off-world rover to have its brains split in two as it explores the Moon’s surface in search of water ice.

Engineers test a stripped-down, engineering prototype of NASAs Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER
Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley test robotics software on a stripped-down, engineering prototype of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, at the Roverscape outdoor robotics research and development facility.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

As it drives across the Moon, VIPER will effectively do its thinking from both its on-board flight software as well as from ground software running from mission control on Earth. Using an engineering prototype of the rover, the VIPER team recently began putting the software through its paces on a simulated lunar terrain at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. 

“We use distributed computing all the time when we use our smart phones to run mapping apps that connect to faraway servers and data centers to run the calculations,” said Terry Fong, chief roboticist and VIPER rover deputy at Ames. “Similarly, VIPER will perform much of its data crunching on faster computers on Earth, since we have a relatively fast connection to mission control during all rover operations.” 

In November, the team began testing the software’s ability to successfully execute commands with the prototype rover. Using an outdoor robotics research and development facility featuring slopes, boulders, and craters, called the Roverscape, the team had the software take the rover for a test drive. The rover performed a variety of activities, like turning in place, driving in a straight line, recording its position, adjusting the suspension, and keeping its antenna stable while moving to ensure the rover can stay in touch with Earth.

The Moon-Gravity Representative Unit prototype is a stripped-down, engineering test unit that focuses on VIPER’s mechanical system, which is specially designed to allow engineers to test how the rover will drive in lunar gravity, which is one-sixth that of Earth’s. 

Engineering prototype of VIPER "stretches its legs"
An engineering prototype of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, demonstrates newly-integrated software acting on the suspension as the rover “stretches its legs.” The activity took place at the Roverscape, an outdoor robotics research and development facility at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Playback speed is 2.3 times faster than real-time.
Credit: NASA Ames/David Maurantonio

Because of the Moon’s proximity to Earth, communications delays are only a matter of seconds. VIPER’s engineers are taking advantage of this to download images and other data from the rover for fast processing, rather than having to rely only on the rover’s slower on-board computing, which also reduces the cost to develop the rover. 

Faster data processing means the mission operations and science teams can make quick-thinking decisions about the rover’s path and science activities. This will speed up operations, expedite science findings and maximize what they can accomplish during VIPER’s 100-day mission on the Moon’s South Pole.

“In addition to the science and operations benefits, keeping a portion of VIPER’s software running on Earth means engineers can take advantage of the latest and greatest in computer processing, data storage, and networking,” said Hans Utz, VIPER rover software lead engineer with KBR at Ames.

Besides the use of distributed computing, VIPER also will break ground by being NASA’s first planetary rover mission to make extensive use of open-source software, including key components adapted from ROS, the Robotics Operating System, considered the industry-standard in robotics development. Once the mission is over, the VIPER team intends to release the rover’s software for general use. This approach allows for a rapid, agile, and cost-effective way of developing the rover’s software systems that can also benefit future rovers on the Moon and beyond.

VIPER is a collaboration within and beyond the agency. VIPER is part of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program and is managed by the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is managing the project, leading the mission’s science, systems engineering, real-time rover surface operations and flight software. The hardware for the rover is being designed and built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the instruments are provided by Ames, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and commercial partner Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California. The spacecraft, lander and launch vehicle that will deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon will be provided by Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was selected through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS initiative, delivering science and technology payloads to and near the Moon. 

Ames Sends Rodents, Cells, and Microbes to Space Station on SpaceX Mission

by Gianine Figliozzi

NASA’s Ames Research Center sent five biology experiments into space on SpaceX’s 21st commercial cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The mission launched on Dec. 6 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and carried mice, cells, and microbes for science investigations that will provide fundamental information about living systems and reveal how biology is different in space. Findings from these studies can help us better understand how to keep astronauts healthy during spaceflight and apply this knowledge to improve life on Earth. 

Here are the five Ames-related experiments launching to the orbiting laboratory:

Spaceflight effects on bone regeneration

Rodent Research-10

Bone health relies on the process of tissue regeneration during which cells continuously break down and build up the structure of bones. The process is akin to removing and replacing rot or termite-damaged beams and boards in a wooden house, so that the whole structure may remain sound over time. Otherwise known in biology as regenerative homeostasis, this process keeps biological systems stable over time. 

image of the Rodent Habitat hardware
The Rodent Habitat aboard the International Space Station used for Rodent Research 7 and other investigations.
Credit: NASA

The combined effects of bone disuse in microgravity plus space radiation can rapidly disrupt regenerative homeostasis, effectively accelerating bone tissue break down while putting the brakes on bone tissue repair. The net result can be about 1.5% of bone loss per month in gravity dependent bones. This presents health risks for astronauts during spaceflight. As a countermeasure, crew aboard the space station undergo extreme daily physical conditioning of about two hours of bone-loading exercise to maintain bone mass.

Rodent Research-10 investigates the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying bone regenerative deficits due to disuse on Earth and microgravity in space. The study examines the role of a gene – Cdkn1a – that produces the CDKN1A protein – that inhibits cell cycle progression in cells. 

Stress conditions such as radiation and oxidative stress in microgravity, have been previously shown to induce expression of CDKN1A. This elevation can in turn inhibit the process by which a type of adult stem cells in bone marrow – osteoprecursors – change into a type of bone cell – osteoblasts – that rebuild bone tissue. These actions add up to “applying the brakes” on bone formation, affecting the normal balance of tissue regeneration and leading to net bone loss. 

Rodent Research-10 will study the effects of spaceflight on regenerative bone formation in two strains of mice, wild-type mice that have the Cdkn1a gene, and Cdkn1a-null mice that lack the gene, relative to both strains of mice that remain on Earth. The experiment will test the hypothesis that mice lacking the Cdkn1a gene will show less bone formation deficit in space relative to Earth’s gravity than wild-type mice. If this hypothesis is proven, that would establish the Cdkn1a gene as being required for arresting stem cell-based bone tissue regenerative processes in space. If confirmed, this may become the basis for designing new treatments to counter tissue degeneration in space and lead to novel therapeutic strategies to address bone diseases on Earth.

Learn more: 

NASA story: Rodent Research

For researchers:

Studying spaceflight effects on the eye

Some astronauts experience a condition during long-duration spaceflights in which the eyes show physical changes such as swelling of the eye nerve, and folding, or flattening of the eye ball that  leads to the use of glasses. These changes have the potential to affect astronauts on long-duration human space missions to destinations like Mars. 

Rodent Research-23 will study the effects of spaceflight on the eyes, specifically on the structure and function of the arteries, veins, and lymphatic vessels that are needed to maintain vision. Mice will be housed aboard the station for five weeks and then returned to Earth where researchers will examine the eyes of the mice for changes caused by the time spent in space. 

The information gathered from this study will help scientists to develop effective countermeasures that will protect future astronauts from spaceflight associated eye conditions and are anticipated to shed light on eye diseases found in humans on Earth.

Learn more: 

NASA story: Rodent Research

For researchers:

Bacteria’ biofilms corrode stainless steel surfaces, poses risks to life support systems

Microorganisms like bacteria often are found attached to surfaces, living in communities known as biofilms. Bacteria within biofilms are protected by a slimy matrix that they secrete. Biofilms can corrode stainless steel surfaces – relevant to stainless steel components of the space station’s water system – and they may become highly resistant to some traditional chemical disinfectants. It is important for the success of NASA’s long duration human spaceflight missions to control microbial growth in the life support system that recycles wastewater into clean water that will be safe for astronauts to drink and use for personal hygiene. 

The Bacterial Adhesion and Corrosion investigation will study the effects of spaceflight on the formation of bacterial biofilms and assess how well disinfectants work to clear them. In addition, this study will help identify which bacterial genes are involved in biofilm growth and corrosion of stainless-steel surfaces in microgravity. Findings from this investigation could provide insight into better ways to control and remove resistant biofilms on Earth and in space, contributing to the success of future long-duration spaceflights.

For researchers:

Studying nervous system stem cells for clues to increased pressure in the skull

High pressure inside the skull can cause vision problems, headaches, and other serious health problems. Visual problems and headaches have been seen in astronauts during long-duration space missions, and one possible cause could be elevated pressure within the skull. This condition is a challenge during long-duration space exploration missions and is an active area for scientific research. Increased cell division of nervous system cells in spaceflight may play a role in intracranial pressure, or the increased pressure inside the skull. 

BioScience-4 examines the underlying biological mechanisms of two types of nervous system stem cells from the brain; the investigators hypothesize that these cells divide faster in the microgravity environment of space. 

Getting a better understanding of how nervous system stem cells function in microgravity could help scientists develop suitable countermeasures to protect astronauts from problems with intracranial pressure. The findings also could have Earth benefits. Cell replacement therapies would benefit humans with neurological disorders or neurodegenerative diseases, like multiple sclerosis, but are not yet practical because no existing method generates stem cells in sufficient numbers or quickly enough. 

The investigation was flown to the station on SpaceX CRS-16; a portion of the investigation will fly again on SpaceX CRS-21. The second flight will carry samples of one cell type, oligodendrocytes, that are important in the movement of signals along nerves. The neural stem cells that were returned to Earth on SpaceX’s CRS-16 Dragon proliferated more in space and after spaceflight. The second flight experiment will help determine if oligodendrocyte progenitors also proliferate more, and faster, in space. When both cell types used in this study were grown in microgravity analog conditions, they divided faster than cells grown under normal gravity conditions. Studying the reasons why, and the mechanisms causing these cells to divide faster, could pave the way to breakthroughs in stem cell production for cell replacement therapies.

For researchers:

Health risks of yeast infections in space

For most people, a yeast microbe that is commonly found in the human gut causes an annoyance or no problems at all. But, for those with suppressed immune systems, this yeast can cause an infection that can be dangerous and potentially even life threatening. Because the conditions of spaceflight change the immune systems of humans, astronauts could face higher health risks should they develop infections, including yeast infections. For instance some species of bacteria, have been known to become more dangerous when grown in the spaceflight environment, but we currently understand little about how the environmental stresses of space affect this yeast. 

The Micro-14 investigation builds upon previous flight and ground-based studies, looking for changes in the impact of the yeast on human cells in space and examining how the yeasts are altered under different environmental conditions such as microgravity, oxygen depletion, and carbon dioxide enrichment. 

The study also assesses different drug treatments to compare their effectiveness in treating yeast in the altered environments. Micro-14 was launched to the station on SpaceX CRS-16 and SpaceX CRS-17; a portion of the experiment will fly again on SpaceX CRS-21. Findings from this research will help to identify better methods for controlling and treating yeast infections both in space and on Earth. 

For researchers:

Main image: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:29 p.m. EST on Dec. 5, 2019, carrying the Dragon spacecraft on the company’s 19th Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station.

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated: Bringing Transformational Science into Prisons

by Frank Tavares

“In the space sciences, we talk a lot about doing what we do for the good of all humankind—but who do we really mean when we say that?”

These sentiments from NASA’s Chief Scientist Jim Green encapsulate the idea behind one of NASA’s most unique educational programs: Astrobiology for the Incarcerated. NASA’s commitment to inclusivity, now one of its core values, means ensuring all communities and learners are involved in the search for life beyond Earth—including those who are incarcerated.

Two people looking over educational materials together.
Nalini Nadkarni, founder of INSPIRE, the Initiative to Bring Science Programming to the Incarcerated, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, visits with an inmate after a lecture in Florida.
Credit: NASA

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated is an educational program that teaches incarcerated communities about the resiliency and transformative history of life on Earth, and the search for life beyond our planet. Using data collected from the program’s lectures, research published in the journal Astrobiology showed participants not only held onto what they learned, but thought of science as more a part of their lives and identity than they had previously—and expressed a desire to engage more with science in the future.

“Involving incarcerated communities in our work takes NASA’s promise seriously,” continued Green. “When NASA says humankind, we mean everyone. When we go to other worlds and look for alien life, we’re involving every community, so we can all make that journey together.”

As the lead for education in NASA’s Astrobiology Program through Wyle Laboratories, Daniella Scalice had been developing educational materials framing astrobiology as an origin story for over a decade. When she met Nalini Nadkarni from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who has been expertly bringing science to incarcerated learners for nearly two decades, Scalice realized that the transformative history and future of life in the universe could be especially relevant to people within incarcerated facilities.

“The story of our cosmic origins illustrates our fundamental interconnectivity and relationality, and highlights that we’re all capable of transformation and change,” said Scalice. “Through Astrobiology for the Incarcerated, we can share these messages embedded in the science: that adaptability and resilience, in even the harshest environments, is not just possible, but fundamental to the nature of life itself.” 

According to research compiled in Nadkarni and Scalice’s paper, there are over two million incarcerated adults and 50,000 young people in juvenile justice facilities in the United States, and those communities traditionally have little access to educational resources. The prison system also disproportionately incarcerates African American and Latinx individuals, who make up 57% of inmates despite only being 29% of the population. Upon release, formerly incarcerated individuals face strong societal biases that make employment difficult and a return to prison in the future common. Through an extended jury duty experience, Scalice grew more aware of these inequities within the justice and carceral systems. This spurred her to propose using the existing tools, mission, and platform of NASA to build meaningful relationships between the space science community and people incarcerated in the prison system.  

“Working with NASA enables the potential to get this kind of science into the hands of people who might never get to learn about astrobiology otherwise,” said Nadkarni, who was also the lead author on the paper detailing the program’s results. “The collaboration has resulted in a wonderful exchange of ideas with our previous work.”

A Story of Life in the Cosmos for All of Us

The lessons presented through the program aren’t standard astrobiology lectures.

“The presentations center on an intellectual humility that allows participants to have a far deeper connection to the content than they would otherwise,” said Scalice. “Rather than entering as scientists and saying, ‘This is how the world works,’ the lecturers created a space in which all perspectives on the fundamental questions of our universe were honored.”

The presentation for adults has three primary sections: a story of creation, a story of adaptation, and a story of exploration, all woven together to deliver a narrative of life’s origins and the search for life elsewhere.

That narrative begins with our common cosmic origins in the creation of the elements to the formation of stars like our own Sun and planetary systems like our solar system. Then lectures on the origins and evolution of life explore how life on our own planet came to be what it is today through resilience and adaptability, diving into the potential for similar processes on other worlds. The final section presents robotic planetary exploration and exoplanet discovery research, pointing toward NASA’s current and future missions to search for life in the most extreme environments of our stellar neighborhood and far beyond.

Incarcerated people practice resilience daily to survive within the extreme circumstances of the prison environment. By presenting this cosmic origin story in a way that weaves astrobiology together with perspectives from beyond the realm of science, Scalice believes it can resonate with these lived experiences and have a greater impact.

“The NASA presentation proved to be interesting, taking one out of the thought of being confined and into an awesome state of education,” said Clayton Marcus, who participated in a lecture at a correctional facility in northern Florida through the program. “I was reminded of Psalm 8:3, which reads: ‘when I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the Moon, and the stars which thou has ordained.’”

Forging Stronger Connections to Science

Since its start in 2016, Astrobiology for the Incarcerated has engaged participants in 26 correctional facilities across the country, in Florida, Ohio, Utah, and Washington. The program collected data since its start from surveying more than 1,000 adult participants. Those results showed participants not only retained new scientific knowledge from a single presentation, but developed a stronger “science identity”—a marker of how much an individual considers themselves engaged with scientific thinking and the scientific process.

Participants also indicated that they were more likely to take future actions to seek out scientific information and get involved in scientific fields of study. Research has indicated that thoughtful educational opportunities can provide opportunities for learning and personal growth while in prison—and greater job prospects after release.

Based on these results, Nadkarni and Scalice believe these informal educational programs are a low-cost, high-impact investment with positive results for the lives and livelihoods of those that participate. For NASA, programs like Astrobiology for the Incarcerated make good on the agency’s promise that our search for knowledge is truly for everyone.

“Astrobiology is inspirational for learners because it tackles big questions like what are the origins and future of life in the cosmos, and it is our responsibility to make the knowledge that we gain accessible to all,” said Mary Voytek, the senior scientist for NASA’s Astrobiology Program. “Education is a human right. That means no matter who you are, what you’ve done, you have a right to knowledge—and knowledge is transformative.”

Galaxy Survives Black Hole’s Feast – For now

by Kassandra Bell

The hungriest of black holes are thought to gobble up so much surrounding material they put an end to the life of their host galaxy. This feasting process is so intense that it creates a highly energetic object called a quasar – one of the brightest objects in the universe – as the spinning matter is sucked into the black hole’s belly. Now, researchers have found a galaxy that is surviving the black hole’s ravenous forces by continuing to birth new stars – about 100 Sun-sized stars a year.   

The discovery from NASA’s telescope on an airplane, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, can help explain how massive galaxies came to be, even though the universe today is dominated by galaxies that no longer form stars. The results are published in the Astrophysical Journal

Illustration of active black hole glowing at the center of galaxy with blue stars surrounded by a ring of dust.
Illustration of the galaxy called CQ4479. The extremely active black hole at the galaxy’s center is consuming material so fast that the material is glowing as it spins into the black hole’s center, forming a luminous quasar. Quasars create intense energy that was thought to halt all star birth and drive a lethal blow to a galaxy’s growth. But SOFIA found that the galaxy CQ4479 is surviving these monstrous forces, holding on to enough cold gas, shown around the edges in brown, to birth about 100 Sun-sized stars a year, shown in blue. The discovery is causing scientists to re-think their theories of galactic evolution.
Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter

“This shows us that the growth of active black holes doesn’t stop star birth instantaneously, which goes against all the current scientific predictions,” said Allison Kirkpatrick, assistant professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence Kansas and co-author on the study. “It’s causing us to re-think our theories on how galaxies evolve.” 

SOFIA, a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR, studied an extremely distant galaxy, located more than 5.25 billion light years away called CQ4479. At its core is a special type of quasar that was recently discovered by Kirkpatrick called a “cold quasar.” In this kind of quasar, the active black hole is still feasting on material from its host galaxy, but the quasar’s intense energy has not ravaged all of the cold gas, so stars can keep forming and the galaxy lives on. This is the first time researchers have a detailed look at a cold quasar, directly measuring the black hole’s growth, star birth rate, and how much cold gas remains to fuel the galaxy. 

“We were surprised to see another oddball galaxy that defies current theories,” said Kevin Cooke, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, and lead author of this study. “If this tandem growth continues both the black hole and the stars surrounding it would triple in mass before the galaxy reaches the end of its life.” 

As one of the brightest and most distant objects in the universe, quasars, or “quasi-stellar radio sources,” are notoriously difficult to observe because they often outshine everything around them. They form when an especially active black hole consumes huge amounts of material from its surrounding galaxy, creating strong gravitational forces. As more and more material spins faster and faster toward the center of the black hole, the material heats up and glows brightly. A quasar produces so much energy that it often outshines everything around it, blinding attempts to observe its host galaxy. Current theories predict that this energy heats up or expels the cold gas needed to create stars, stopping star birth and driving a lethal blow to a galaxy’s growth. But SOFIA reveals there is a relatively short period  when the galaxy’s star birth can continue while the black hole’s feast goes on powering the quasar’s powerful forces.  

Rather than directly observing the newborn stars, SOFIA used its 9-foot telescope to detect the infrared light radiating from the dust heated by the process of star formation.  Using data collected by SOFIA’s High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, or HAWC+ instrument, scientists were able to estimate the amount of star formation over the past 100 million years. 

“SOFIA lets us see into this brief window of time where the two processes can co-exist,” said Cooke. “It’s the only telescope capable of studying star birth in this galaxy without being overwhelmed by the intensely luminous quasar.” 

The short window of joint black hole and star growth represents an early phase in the death of a galaxy, wherein the galaxy has not yet succumbed to the devastating effects of the quasar. Continued research with SOFIA is needed to learn if many other galaxies go through a similar stage with joint black hole and star growth before ultimately reaching the end of life. Future observations with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2021, could uncover how quasars affect the overall shape of their host galaxies. 

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science, and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association, headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California. The HAWC+ instrument was developed and delivered to NASA by a multi-institution team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL. 

Mitochondrial Changes Key to Health Problems in Space

by Frank Tavares

Living in space isn’t easy. There are notable impacts on the biology of living things in the harsh environment of space. A team of scientists has now identified a possible underlying driver of these impacts: the powerhouse of the cell, called mitochondria, experiences changes in activity during spaceflight.

Recently published in the journal Cell, these results used data collected over decades of experimental research on the International Space Station, including samples from 59 astronautsStudies such as these are critical to understanding the effects of low gravity, radiation, confined spaces, and more as NASA sends astronauts deep into space for extended missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

“We’ve found a universal mechanism that explains the kinds of changes we see to the body in space, and in a place we didn’t expect,” said Afshin Beheshti the lead author on the paper and a researcher with KBR, which provides contract support to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Everything gets thrown out of whack and it all starts with the mitochondria.”

Scientist, to the right, sitting at a lab desk pipetting into a set of samples. There's a large machine to the left.
A scientist working with the GeneLab platform at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley processes samples related to space biology research.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

“We’ve found a universal mechanism that explains the kinds of changes we see to the body in space, and in a place we didn’t expect,” said Afshin Beheshti the lead author on the paper and a researcher with KBR, which provides contract support to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Everything gets thrown out of whack and it all starts with the mitochondria.”

The research also made use of a comprehensive database of animal studies collected on the GeneLab platform at Ames, as well as the NASA twin study comparing identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly over the course of a year. The GeneLab platform is the first of its kind to capture large amounts of space biology “omics” data that can be used to characterize and quantify biological molecules – such as DNA, RNA, and proteins – and their systematic effects on the structures and functions of organisms. GeneLab’s Analysis Working Group drew in scientists from all over the world to collaborate on the study and get the most out of the data housed on the open-source platform.

Mitochondria are tiny structures within cells that produce energy for the basic units of biology that make up our bodies. When that energy production breaks down, many of the body’s key organs and its immune system can be put in jeopardy. This new research indicates this breakdown in activity of mitochondria might contribute to health or performance challenges faced by humans in space.

The first clue about the connection between mitochondria and spaceflight came from research using rodents.

“When we started comparing the tissues from mice flown on separate space missions, we noticed that mitochondrial dysfunction kept popping up,” said Beheshti. “Whether we were looking at problems in the eyes or in the liver, the same pathways related to mitochondria were the source of the problem.”

NASA’s data on humans backed this hypothesis up. The changes identified in astronaut Scott Kelly’s immune system during his year in space starting in 2015 may be explained by the changes observed in the activity of his mitochondria as well. Blood and urine samples from dozens of other astronauts showed further evidence that, in various types of cells, being in space led to altered mitochondrial activity.

“This is a big step toward figuring out how our bodies can live healthily off-world,” said Beheshti. “And the good news is, this is a problem we can already start to tackle. We can look at countermeasures and drugs we already use to deal with mitochondrial disorders on Earth to see how they might work in space, to start.”

From issues as wide-ranging as disrupted circadian rhythms to cardiovascular alterations, scientists can now turn to this small but essential structure in cells as a place to continue research and look for solutions. Mitochondria are indeed the powerhouse of the cell, and may also power the future of space biology research – pointing the way toward discoveries that will help astronauts live safely in orbit and beyond.

US Small Businesses, Research Institutions to Build on Promising Space Technologies

by Gianine Figliozzi

NASA has selected 19 proposals from 17 U.S. small businesses for a total of more than $14 million in follow-on funding through the agency’s Small Business Technology Transferm, or STTR, program. The awards will help advance NASA priorities such as the Artemis program and other initiatives in aeronautics, human exploration and operations, science, and space technology. 

NASA’s STTR program is open to small businesses partnering with U.S. research institutions to develop an innovation or technology. The partnering component distinguishes STTR from its sister program, NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR). 

The companies selected in this round of funding are all previous NASA STTR Phase I award recipients and have successfully established the feasibility of their technologies. As Phase II awardees, the companies will receive up to $750,000 to develop, demonstrate, and deliver their technologies to NASA.

“NASA wouldn’t be where it is today without the many small businesses and research institutions coming up with innovative solutions needed to accomplish our missions,” said Jenn Gustetic, director of Early Stage Innovations and Partnerships for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, or STMD, in Washington. “STTR has proven to be an important mechanism for the agency, allowing the best and brightest – not only from the small business community, but also from research institutions across the country – to contribute to the space program.”

The following are among the Phase II selections:

  • Plasma Processes, a veteran-owned small business based in Huntsville, Alabama, will continue partnering with Georgia Tech Research Corporation in Atlanta to develop a dual-mode “green” propulsion system. NASA and future commercial clients could use the system for missions requiring attitude and orbit control, reaction control, formation flying, and controlled reentry. 
  • H2O Insights, a woman-owned small business and first-time NASA STTR Phase II recipient located in Scottsdale, Arizona, will continue partnering with Arizona State University in Tempe to develop a novel optical fiber. The technology could enhance the ability of ultraviolet lights to disinfect bacteria in International Space Station water systems and potential applications in major home appliances, water appliances, biomedical devices, or air and surface disinfection.
  • Multi3D, Inc., a first-time NASA STTR Phase II recipient located in Cary, North Carolina, will continue partnering with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to create a metasurface antenna. The antenna could help future NASA missions map water content on the lunar surface and Earth.

NASA chose the Phase II proposals according to their technical merit and feasibility, Phase I results, and the experience, qualifications, and facilities of the submitting organization. Additional criteria included the effectiveness of the proposed work plan and commercial potential.

“Today’s awards will bring the great ideas that these small businesses and research institutions proved during their Phase I contracts one step closer to reality,” said NASA SBIR/STTR Acting Program Executive Gynelle Steele. “We believe these small businesses, partnered with the research institutions, will rise to the challenge and demonstrate how their innovations can improve our work both inside and outside of the agency for terrestrial applications.”

STTR is part of STMD and is managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. 

To view all the STTR Phase II selections, visit:

For more information on the NASA SBIR/STTR program, including the 2021 NASA SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation, which is open to small businesses and research institutions through Jan. 8, 2021, please visit:

For more information about NASA’s investment in space technology, visit:

The Ames 2020 CFC, We Give Because We Care – Let’s Show Some Love, Ames! 


by Harry Jackson, Ames CFC Campaign Manager

It’s time to Show Some Love! This year’s Combined Federal Campaign, or CFC, is in full swing and will run through Jan. 15, 2021. You’re invited to join the hundreds of thousands in the federal community who pledge through the CFC year after year.

Not sure what the CFC is or how it works? On March 23, 1982, President Reagan issued executive order 12353 “Charitable Fundraising,” which created the modern CFC. One of the largest and most successful employee fundraising campaigns in the world, the CFC is the official workplace giving opportunity for the federal government. The mission of the campaign is to promote and support philanthropy through a program that is employee-focused, cost-efficient, and effective in providing federal employees the opportunity to improve the quality of life for all.


The CFC allows federal employees, contractors, and retirees to combine efforts to raise money, volunteer, and “Show Some Love” to their favorite CFC-supported charities.

Ames is a leader among Bay Area federal agencies in generosity and support of the CFC. Ames has been the number one contributor in caring for others for a number of years within the Northern California CFC, covering 40 counties. We believe there is a direct correlation between the success of the campaign and management interest, involvement, and support. 

Whether this is your first experience with the CFC or your fifteenth, it’s helpful to know your giving options. You can contribute financially to one or more charities of your choice through payroll deduction, credit card, and e-check. You can even pledge volunteer hours! So, please think about the cause(s) you want to support and how much you can give to help those in need.

Not sure how much to give to your favorite charity? Last year, the average gift in the Northern California CFC Zone was $577.00. Please consider whether you’re able to match or even exceed that amount. However you choose to give, every little bit makes a difference for those in need.  Your pledge can be completed anonymously or with the release of your contact information to the charity you are supporting.  This year’s fund-raising goal for 2020 is $220,000.

Please visit your Ames CFC Website at: for a list of charities to find those with programs that support your chosen causes or contact your directorate CFC key workers for more information or if you need assistance designating your pledge. Let’s come together Ames and Show Some Love for our CFC charities and those they serve!

Cheers, and thank you for your support,

For additional information, contact Harry Jackson, Ames CFC Chief Coordinator or Bryan Biegel, Ames Deputy Chief Coordinator

Former Ames Research Scientist and Early Ames Pioneer Richard Johnson Passes Away

Dr. Richard D. Johnson

Dr. Richard D. Johnson passed away Nov. 26, in Pleasanton, California. Richard received his B.A. in chemistry in 1956 from Oberlin College, his M.S. and PhD from Carnegie-Mellon University in organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry in 1960 and 1962. He then did a post-doc at UCLA in 1963 and briefly worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, where he met Vance Oyama who invited him to join him at NASA Ames in the Life Detection Branch of the newly formed Exobiology Division.   Richard was at NASA Ames as a scientist and manager from 1964-1985.

As a researcher in the Life Detection Branch, Richard developed a simple instrument to measure the total organic content of samples and was selected to be on the Preliminary Examination Team at the Johnson Space Center, or JSC, Lunar Quarantine Facility to analyze the return samples from Apollo 11.

Richard felt his major accomplishments at Ames were: establishing the Biosystems Division to fly NASA experiments on Russian spacecraft and eventually the Space Shuttle and Spacelab; active participation in the Viking Mission, the first lander on Mars, where he was deputy to Dr. Harold Klein, the Mission Bioscience lead where he interacted with instrument builders and selected scientists for the mission; and the Space Settlement Study, which showed the possibility of a 10,000 person colony built from lunar materials and sustained by solar energy.

Richard was co-director of the joint NASA/Stanford University/American Society for Engineering Education Summer Study Fellowship Program, which resulted in the publication of NASA SP-413 Space Settlements, A Design Study in 1977. The study also was written up in the Bicentennial Edition of the National Geographic, Vol. 150, No. 1, July 1976, p 76 entitled, “The Next Frontier?” by Isaac Asimov. The 10,000 requests for the NASA publication were answered personally by Richard.

RIchard was the recipient of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal for his work on developing the biology instrument for the Viking Mission from its inception, through design, manufacture, test, and ultimately successful operation. He was a member of the NASA Senior Executive Service and was selected to be a Sloan Fellow at MIT for the academic year 1981-1982, where he received his MS in management.

He took an early retirement from NASA Ames and worked at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park from 1985-1992 as a principal technology consultant world-wide including Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Australia, but primarily in Italy with the aerospace industry.

Richard is survived by his wife Caye (also a NASA Ames retiree), his four children, five grandchildren, and two great grandsons. Caye can be reached via email at

Statistical Summary of Activities of the Protective Service Division’s Security/Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Services Units for Period Ending November 2020