The Space Science and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center provides unique interdisciplinary scientific expertise and capabilities that advance human understanding of the Molecular Evolution in the Galaxy, the Evolution and Formation of Planetary Systems, and our Understanding of the Origin and Evolution of Life in the Universe. Our core science capabilities in theoretical, observational, experimental, and instrument development work are focused to enhance and enable the science and exploration goals of NASA and the scientific community.
The Division’s scientific breadth and depth provide the Agency with a unique interdisciplinary workforce utilizing multidisciplinary teams of astronomers, astrophysicists, chemists, microbiologists, physicists, and planetary scientists and organized into different research teams:
Laboratory Astrophysics and Astrochemistry
All Research Teams
We are very proud of Tony Colaprete who is the principal investigator on the LCROSS mission (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) that was selected as the Secondary Payload for the LRO mission. LCROSS delivered a 2000 kg impactor that created a plume of lunar ejecta which was observed by multiple Earth and space-based assets. From this mission, we have learned that the Cabeus Crater near the south pole of the Moon contains ice and other volatiles within the permanently shadowed region, and we are learning about the nature of the lunar regolith at this location as well. You can read more about the LCROSS mission at ABC News, Popular Mechanics, Space.com, Astronomy Today, and astrobio.net just to name a few. NASA Ames developed the mission sent to the Moon called LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer). LADEE gathered detailed information about conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust. A thorough understanding of these influences is helping researchers predict how future lunar exploration may shape the moon’s environment and how the environment may affect future explorers. NASA Ames scientist Rick Elphic is the LADEE Project Scientist while Tony Colaprete is the PI for the ultraviolet-visible spectrometer instrument.
AS11-40-5954 (20 July 1969) — This crater which was located near the point the Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) touched down on the moon was photographed by the Apollo 11 astronauts during their lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA). Dark shadows obscure much of the crater wall in the background. Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit while Neil A. Armstrong, commander, and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, explored the moon. The object in the foreground is the Apollo 11 35mm stereo close-up camera.
Members of our Division are co-investigators on a number of missions such as The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) (David Des Marais, Nathalie Cabrol, Jeff Morre), the CRISM and HiRISE instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter MRO (Robert Haberle, Virginia Gulick, Janice L Bishop), the Mars Phoenix Lander (Chris McKay, Carol Stoker, Aaron Zent), and even ESA (European Space Agency missions such as Mars Express (Aaron Zent). The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover named “Curiosity” landed at Mar’s Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Ames scientist David Blake is the Principal Investigator of CheMin, an X-ray Diffraction / X-ray Fluorescence instrument that for the first time is determining the quantitative mineralogy of the rocks and soil of Mars. NASA Ames scientists Dave Des Marais, Tori Hoehler, Thomas Bristow, Michael Wilson, and Philippe Sarrazin are CheMin Co-Investigators and members of the MSL Science Team. Ames scientist Chris McKay is a Co-Investigator on the SAM instrument (Goddard Spaceflight Center) and a member of the MSL Science Team.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took a selfie with nine of the 10 sample tubes it deposited at a sample depot created within an area of Jezero Crater nicknamed “Three Forks.” This annotated version of the selfie points out the estimated locations of those nine tubes. The ninth tube dropped during the construction of the depot, containing the sample the science team refers to as “Atsah,” can be seen in front of the rover. Other sample tubes are visible in the background, including “Skyland,” which is labeled. The image was taken by the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera on the end of the rover’s robotic arm on Jan. 22, 2023, the 684th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The selfie is composed of 59 individual WATSON images that were stitched together once they were sent back to Earth. The Curiosity rover takes similar selfies using a camera on its robotic arm; videos explaining how the rovers take their selfies can be found here. The depot marks a crucial milestone in the NASA-ESA (European Space Agency) Mars Sample Return campaign that aims to bring Mars samples to Earth for closer study. The depot – completed when the 10th tube was dropped on Jan. 29, 2023 – will serve as a backup if Perseverance can’t deliver its samples to a future robotic lander. A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis. The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA25735
Outer Solar Systems Missions
Jeff Moore was appointed the Imaging Node Leader for NASA’s New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission. We have other outer Solar System scientists who are participating in that mission, including Dale Cruikshank who is also a participating scientist on the Cassini Mission (VIMS team), and he was also part of the Galileo Mission as well. Dale is also a Co-Investigator on a selected Mars Scout Mission. Dr. Sandford was a Co-Investigator on the Stardust Mission which brought back dust from Comet Wild2. See the photos that Dr. Sandford took while they were finding the sample return capsule from the Stardust Mission, transporting it back to JSC, and opening it up in the cleanroom.
This artist’s impression shows sunrise over CoRoT-7b, the smallest-known exoplanet. The world is about 70 percent larger than Earth. Now, a team led by Brian Jackson at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center finds that the planet may be the rocky remains of a gas giant planet whose atmosphere was evaporated by close proximity to the star.
Human space exploration helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system.
Researchers in the NASA Ames Space Science and Astrobiology Division are using space-based telescopes such as Hubble and Spitzer. Division scientists have been leads or co-investigators on dozens of observing programs and have had more successful Spitzer proposals than any other group. In cycle two we had an unprecedented 75% win rate! Among our scientists using Hubble are Jeff Cuzzi and Jack Lissauer. Dr. Lissauer is now perhaps best known for his recent paper with former SSA division post-doctoral fellow Eugenio Rivera (now at UC Santa Cruz) on the discovery of the most Earth-like planet outside of our Solar System.
Speaking of planet-finding, the Kepler spacecraft collected data to search for Earth-size and smaller planets around other stars. The Kepler Project Office, Science Office, and Science Operations Center are located at NASA Ames with many Ames scientists worked hard to search for habitable planets! Jack Lissauer has published several papers, including a Nature article reporting on a multiple-planet system around a Sun-like star named Kepler-11.