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It is in dense clouds of interstellar dust, gas and ice like the Carina Nebula that new stars and planetary systems are formed. (Photo: NASA HST/Heritage)

UA, NOAO Join NASA-funded Search for Life on Other Planets

The University of Arizona and National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) will bring top scientists and world-class telescope facilities to the NASA-funded search for life on other planets, strengthening the "astro" part of the U.S. space agency's astrobiology program.

NASA yesterday announced it has selected 12 new teams to join the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), a national and international research consortium that studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe.

"The search for the origin of life, and the related question of how often life occurs in our galaxy and the universe are potentially the most interesting and challenging topics in all of 21st century science," said UA astronomy Professor Nick Woolf, who leads the new Tucson-based project.

"We want to link the existing strengths of Arizona in astronomy, optics and planetary sciences to planned new strengths in life sciences. Not only is the search for how we and our planet started expected to be a key area of 21st century science, but these studies are important to high technologies in optics and life sciences that are valuable to our state's economy and the lives of all our citizens," Woolf said last night.

Trifid Nebula (Photo: NASA HST/Heritage)


He and Michael R. Meyer, UA assistant professor of astronomy and deputy principal investigator on the UA/NOAO astrobiology project, are currently on Mount Graham, where they are using the 1.8-meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope to observe "earthshine," a spectrum of our planet reflected from the dark part of the moon that will be useful in their future searches for Earth-like planets around other stars.

"We are enormously excited to participate in this Tucson-based team, which links the strengths of Steward Observatory, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and NOAO," said Stephen Strom, associate director for science at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the organization that operates Kitt Peak National Observatory. "Our scientific targets are youthful solar systems. By observing the circumstellar disks of gas and dust from which planets form, especially around stars similar to a young sun, we expect to learn when in a star's life that planets can form, and how changes in the young sun's energy output might influence the evolution of life on Earth-like planets elsewhere."

The team includes 22 co-investigators and collaborators: 17 from the UA, three from NOAO, and one each from the University of California Berkeley and Ohio State University.

"Our goal is to contribute a strong astronomical element to the NAI program and to develop connections with chemistry and biochemistry," Woolf said.

The scientists will focus on three research themes:

  • UA astrochemist Professor Lucy Ziurys leads research on the prebiotic compounds and complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium that are the building blocks of life. Team member Aldo Apponi said research will involve studies of prebiotic compounds and molecules already known in space, searches for new ones by laboratory experiments and follow-up observations, and theoretical modeling.

  • Stephen Strom and Joan Najita of NOAO will lead astronomers in studying environments and conditions under which habitable worlds form and evolve. They will use such state-of-the-art facilities as the Gemini and Keck telescopes to study gas content and physical structure of disks in the planet forming regions as well as model thermal and chemical structure of the disks, Najita said. Mark Giampapa of the Tucson-based National Solar Observatory will study how magnetic activity leads to variability in the luminous output of sun-like stars, from "young suns" to stars the age of our sun.

  • UA Regents' Professor of astronomy J. Roger P. Angel and astronomer Phil Hinz lead observations to directly detect and characterize extra-solar giant planets. They also lead theoretical studies that aim to learn about giant planet atmospheres that contain water, and even whether these atmospheres support some kind of microbial life. And their group will make near-infrared observations of the "earthshine" spectrum

Education and outreach are other important parts of the UA/NOAO astrobiology program, said UA planetary sciences Professor Jonathan I. Lunine. Lunine, who has been involved with NAI and wrote a 1999 book titled "Earth: Evolution of a Habitable World," is a member of the science steering committee for the Tucson-based astrobiology program.

UA will create a center called the "Life And Planets Astrobiology Center," or the Laplace Center, within the College of Science to promote interdisciplinary studies needed to develop the astrobiology community beyond the departmental level and across institutional boundaries.

"This is not only an opportunity for linking astronomy and biology, but such sciences as chemistry and geology," Woolf said. "There are parts of this study that link to all the sciences and help break down barriers between disciplines."

In addition, UA will create a winter astrobiology school to train about 20 graduate students, half from outside the UA, Lunine said.

The UA has major programs in astronomy, astrochemistry, planetary sciences, optical sciences, and biological sciences. The UA Steward Observatory is a major partner in world-class optical/infrared and radio telescopes, including the 11.8-meter Large Binocular Telescope on Arizona's Mount Graham, the 6.5-meter MMT on Arizona's Mount Hopkins, the twin Magellan 6.5-meter telescopes in Chile, the 10-meter Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham, and the Kitt Peak 12-meter Telescope.

NOAO observatories in Tucson and Chile are also key in the new Tucson-based astrobiology effort. NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The institutional awards begin in fall 2003, when current agreements with the NAI's 11 founding team conclude, NASA said in yesterday's announcement. NAI team awards are for five years, with annual reviews, at an average annual funding level of $1 million. Funding supports interdisciplinary research along with professional, educational and public outreach activities, coordinated through NAI's offices at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

The NAI, founded in 1997, is a partnership between NASA, 16 major U.S. teams and five international consortia. NAI's goal is to promote, conduct and lead integrated multidisciplinary astrobiology research and to train a new generation of astrobiology researchers.

"We would not have won this opportunity without the help of Tucson scientists both from NOAO and the university," Woolf said. "The university and NOAO both have provided matching funds for this work."

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Last updated: 11/08/11.