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Astrobiology in Space Exploration Missions
Astrobiology is a cross-cutting theme in all of NASA’s space science endeavors, knitting together research in astrophysics, earth science, and heliophysics as well as planetary science. NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap, prepared in consultation with the scientific community, outlines multiple possible pathways for research and exploration. The Astrobiology Program already plays a role in many of NASA’s solar system exploration initiatives, and astrobiology is a primary focus of a growing number of upcoming exploration missions.
For example, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is to determine whether life ever arose on Mars. MSL’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012 and will explore the surface of the planet to return data relevant to the MSL objectives. The Astrobiology Science Laboratory mission, proposed as a successor to MSL, will be dedicated to astrobiology research on Mars. Astrobiology will play a prominent role in a Mars Sample Return mission as well. The Phoenix Mars polar-lander mission, launched in August 2007, was designed to conduct in-situ sampling and analysis of martian surface and subsurface soil and ice. The science objectives of the Phoenix Mars mission were to study the history of water on Mars in all of its phases, search for evidence of habitable zones on Mars and assess the potential for life in the ice-soil boundary of the martian arctic region. Although the primary phase of Phoenix’s mission is now complete, the data returned will continue to yield scientific results relevant to astrobiology for years to come.
The ASTEP Program sponsors terrestrial field testing of instruments and equipment being developed for MSL and other future planetary missions. The ASTID Program supports the development of instruments for future missions as well. For instance, ASTID funding contributed to the development of the Urey Mars Organic and Oxidant Detector for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Concepts under consideration for missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa also feature astrobiological investigations.
At the same time that astrobiology plays a key role in many solar system exploration missions, astrobiologists also make extensive use of data produced by other space science projects to study topics such as prebiotic chemistry in interstellar space, the formation of habitable planets, and extraterrestrial environments where prebiotic chemistry or life may have occurred. These projects include the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, and ground-based telescopes around the world at facilities such as the Keck Observatory.August 15, 2012