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April 23, 2002

Kathleen Burton

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Phone: 650/604-1731 or 604-9000



A mission proposal from NASA Ames Research Center to measure the pre-biological chemical building blocks of life in deep space has been selected as a next-mission candidate under NASA'S Explorer Program -- a roster of low-cost, focused next-generation spacecraft.

The Astrobiology Explorer, known as ABE, has a hydrogen ice-chilled telescope that will search for interstellar organic compounds, such as carbon-containing ices, dust and molecules, throughout the universe. If chosen, the $180 million mission will fly as early as 2007. The ABE spacecraft will be put into an orbit around the sun, gradually drifting 14 million miles away from Earth during its 18-month mission lifetime.

"This is the next step," said Ames principal investigator Dr. Scott Sandford. "We need an infrared telescope in space because we can’t measure signals at these wavelengths using even the largest ground-based telescopes."

The ABE telescope must be chilled and put into space in order to detect the very weak signals it seeks, which would otherwise be lost in the flood of infrared radiation produced by the Earth’s own warmth. "It’s as if we were trying to detect the light from a candle that is held in front of a searchlight," Sandford added. "Chilling the telescope and putting it in space is like turning off the searchlight."

The telescope and its instruments will measure light at wavelengths in the infrared spectrum, which are wavelengths about 10 times longer than what the human eye can see, and that we experience as heat.

ABE’s primary goal is to understand the molecular chemistry that occurs in space, and to identify the molecules that are found in different space environments. ABE observations also will provide new insights into the physical nature of young stars, comets, galaxies and other objects in the universe.

ABE’s science team will look for the spectral signatures of complex organic molecules and the simpler molecules from which they are formed, such as water, ammonia and methanol. In recent laboratory simulations of cold, space-like conditions, Sandford and other Ames scientists found that organic molecules, including those necessary for life, such as ketones and complex hydrocarbons, can be produced in deep interstellar space.

One advantage ABE will have over previous infrared space observatories, the researchers say, is its large, sensitive infrared light detectors. These Ames-developed devices will allow researchers to collect millions of pixels of information at once, much more than previously.

"ABE will have three instruments called spectrometers, which will slice up the light collected by the telescope," said Ames’ Dr. Tom Greene, ABE’s mission architect. "The detectors in these spectrometers will sense the unique infrared signatures of many atoms, molecules and dust grains."

Sylvia Cox and other Ames personnel will serve as members of the ABE team.

The team will partner with Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., which will build the instrument and spacecraft. A group of 18 scientists from Ames, as well as other U.S. and international institutes, also will work on ABE.

NASA will select two of the Explorer mission proposals by early 2003 for full

development as Medium-class Explorer flights. The Explorer program is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., for the Office of Space Science, Washington.

More information about ABE is available at:

More information about the Explorer program and the other selected proposals is available at:


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