Earth's atmosphere as seen from space

The High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge will be featured at the 2014 meeting of the 100 Year Starship Symposium, which takes place in Houston on 18-21 September 2014.

“Searching for Extraterrestrial Life at the Edge of Space” is one of two featured papers that will be presented during the Life Sciences in Space Exploration Track chaired by NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle. The paper will be presented by Edward Wright, founder of the United States Rocket Academy and project manager for Citizens in Space.

The High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge seeks to develop a reliable means of collecting microorganisms from the extreme upper atmosphere (altitudes of 100,000 feet and above). Such organisms have been collected by high-altitude balloons, but balloons lack the reliability and controllability of reusable suborbital spacecraft now under development.

The other featured paper will be “When Biology Meets Exobiology,” by David Almandsmith and Dr. Carmen Nevarez of Khotso Consulting.

Symposium registration is now open.

Written by Astro1 on August 2nd, 2014 , Astrobiology, Citizens in Space

Artist's conception of Kepler 186-f

Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.

While planets have been found in the habitable zone before, but all were at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth, and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth, NASA says.

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Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2014 , Astrobiology, Astronomy, Space Settlement

Scientists have started searching for Dyson spheres, artificial constructs where a star is entirely surrounded by a swarm of facilities or habitats, utilizing all available solar energy.

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Written by Astro1 on May 27th, 2013 , Astrobiology, Astronomy

The failure of multiple experiments on the Russian Bion M biosatellite mission shows the limitations of automation.

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Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2013 , Astrobiology, Space Policy and Management Tags:

Protein crystals from NASA microgravity experiments

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space has issued the following press release.

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Written by Astro1 on March 14th, 2013 , Astrobiology

An interesting comment from Dr. Gerry Harp, who recently succeeded Dr. Jill Tarter as director of the Center for SETI Research:

This endeavor is not as long a shot as people think. The technology is growing exponentially, especially signal processing, as computers are getting faster. Every six years our search speed is increased by a factor of 10. It’s not like we’re looking at star after star after star at the same rate.

This example shows that, contrary to certain “space cynics,” Moore’s Law of exponential growth can apply in space research.

Unfortunately, many space programs are still stuck in a pattern of slow (or even negative) arithmetic growth, due to political decisions that have kept NASA wedded to last-generation technologies and systems like Orion and JWST.

Written by Astro1 on December 28th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Astronomy

Tardigrades, also known as waterbears or moss piglets, are tiny (microscopic or near-microscopic) multi-celled extremophiles found in a variety of environments. Tardigrades are most easily found in lichens and mosses but are also known to live in marine and freshwater sediments, soil, sand dunes, and beaches. They have been found at oceans depths of 13,000 feet and altitudes above 20,000 feet in the Himalayas. The exist at every latitude from the poles to the equator.

Tardigrades can enter a dormant state in which they can survive for years without water. They have shown the ability to survive temperatures as high 300º F and close to absolute zero (-459º F). They can tolerate radiation lethals 1000 times greater than the mean lethal dose for humans (5000-6000 Gray units versus 2.5). They can survive pressures of 1,200-6,000 atmospheres and the vacuum of space.

Clark Lindsey’s Space For All blog provided a pointer to the following video about a citizen scientist who studies tardigrades.


The ability of tardigrades to survive in space was first shown by the European Space Agency’s Biopan-6 experimental platform during the Russian Foton-M3 mission in 2007.

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Written by Astro1 on September 7th, 2012 , Astrobiology Tags:

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often asked rhetorically, to indicate disdain at a silly question, or to indicate amusement at the foolishness of early religious thought.

Although, Catholic theologians tell us the question is both misquoted and misunderstood. The original form of the question asked how many angels could occupy an arbitrarily small point in space  – there was no dancing involved. It was a serious philosophical thought experiment that touched on subtle questions about the nature of infinity, space, and divine nature. No theologian seriously proposed answers like 17 or 22. The only possibilities seriously considered were zero, one, and as “many as God wills.”

It’s ironic that this question is so often quoted to indicate the superiority of modern thought over medieval ignorance, when in fact it indicates a lack of historical and philosophical understanding among moderns. We cite this as an example of cultural bias, which one must always be on against when considering alien ideas.

Which brings us to our real subject – a recent press release by the SETI Institute, in which SETI Institute founder and former director Dr. Jill Tarter takes issue with physicist Stephen Hawking.

Dr. Tarter disagrees with recent statements by Dr. Hawking, who has warned that alien civilizations might harbor hostile intentions toward Earth. She states, “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets.  If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.”

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Written by Astro1 on June 12th, 2012 , Astrobiology

The Extremo Files at Wired magazine explains how the Irish potato famine relates to suborbital science.

Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizens in Space

Astrobiology Challenge invites public to build space hardware

(San Mateo, California) – A NASA-inspired competition is challenging citizen scientists to build hardware for collecting microorganisms at the edge of space.

Citizen scientists can win cash prizes up to $10,000 in the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, announced Saturday by Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy. If successful, their work may help stop a future epidemic.

Citizens in Space project manager Edward Wright announced the challenge at Maker Faire, the nation’s largest festival of do-it-yourself science and engineering, which attracts more than 100,000 people in the Bay Area.

“A NASA astrobiologist approached us with this idea,” Wright said. “Researchers have learned that the Earth’s biosphere extends to much higher altitudes than previously suspected – up to 100,000 feet or more. The upper atmosphere could serve as a global transport system for disease organisms. It could also be a breeding ground for new diseases due to increased mutation rates from high levels of background radiation.

“In the past, these organisms could only be collected by high-altitude balloons, with poor reliability. Low-cost suborbital spacecraft, such as the XCOR Lynx, will be able to sample these organisms repeatedly with high reliability.”

Citizens in Space has acquired an initial contract for ten suborbital spaceflights with XCOR Aerospace, the Mojave, California-based company that is developing the Lynx spacecraft. The winning hardware from the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge will fly on all ten flights, along with other citizen-science experiments.

“We have space for about 100 small experiments, and we’re making all of it available to citizen scientists,” Wright said. “Thanks to rapid advances in technology, it’s now possible to build high-quality space-science hardware with off-the-shelf parts, stuff you might pick up at Radio Shack or Home Depot. We want to see what citizen scientists can do with those parts.”

“Citizen scientists are doing amazing things,” said Lt. Col. Steve Heck (USAF-ret.), a science teacher from Milford, Ohio who is one of three citizen astronaut candidates selected to fly as payload operators. “They’re discovering exoplanets and dinosaurs, monitoring climate and endangered species, and helping to map the human genome. The development of reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science.

“There may be new species up there we know nothing about. We want to find those species.”

The High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge offers money, fame, and the chance to save the planet from killer microbes from the edge of space — but there’s one more incentive for citizen scientists to enter the competition.

“We plan to select another seven astronaut candidates over the next 12-24 months,” Heck said. “When we do, citizen scientists who have submitted hardware for our flights will be among the first in line.”

Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizens in Space

A team of 20 scientists,  led by astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University, wants to send a fleet of sensor packages to Mars. The mission is called Biological Oxidant and Life Detection or BOLD.

Dr. Schulze-Makuch said, “We really want to address the big questions on Mars and not fiddle around.” With money for space science drying up, Schulze-Makuch says NASA needs to get exciting results that interest not only scientists but the general public as well.

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Written by Astro1 on April 24th, 2012 , Astrobiology Tags:

Dr. David Grinspoon, who is training to be a suborbital scientist-astronaut, has been named as the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. The chair is a joint project of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.

Grinspoon is the curator of astrobiology in the Department of Space Sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is a well-known researcher in planetary science and the author of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life.

Grinspoon is also a founding member of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group (SARG), a group of 12 scientists who are training to be scientist astronauts on commercial suborbital vehicles. SARG is headed by Dr. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, a space scientist who previously served as Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters. SARG also serves as a coordination and advisory committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

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Written by Astro1 on April 23rd, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizen Exploration

There’s unexpected news for people who believe astrobiology is an ivory-tower science with no practical applications. A growing body of research suggests that extremophile organisms living in the upper atmosphere, at the very edge of space, can affect our lives in unexpected ways, even controlling the Earth’s weather.

At a conference of the American Society for Microbiology in May 2011, a team of scientsts led by Alexander Michaud from Montana State University presented results showing that bacteria play a key role in the formation of hailstones, which cause billions of dollars in damage to drops and property every year.

At the same conference, Pierre Amato of Clermont University, France suggested that airborne microbes may play a role in greenhouse gas formation.

Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses may play a role in the formation of rain as well as hail. Microorganisms may catalyze precipitation by acting as nucleation sites for the formation of water droplets and ice crystals. Inorganic materials can serve as nucleation sites but biological materials have been shown to be much more effectiveness. This effectiveness has been shown to be highly species-specific.

Such discoveries are remarkable because, until recently, it was generally assumed that microorganisms were confined to the lower layers of the atmosphere. It is now known that microbes exist in the stratosphere and perhaps much higher, and a growing body of evidence suggests that high-altitude organisms can effect life on Earth.

Efforts are already underway to determine the upper limits of the Earth’s biosphere. In 2011, NASA launched a balloon to 120,000 feet in an attempt to collect such organisms.

Balloon science is limited, however. Balloons go where the winds take them, rather than where researchers want them, and post-flight recovery efforts are not always successful.

In the near future, reusable suborbital spacecraft will provide new capabilities for sampling upper-atmosphere organisms on a regular basis with high reliability. Correlating atmospheric microfauna with the development of weather systems will require a large of flights over an extended period of time. This is the type of repetitive science that can can benefit greatly from the participation of citizen scientists and citizen space explorers.

Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizen Science (General)

The Pavilion Lake Research Project is a joint project of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to study the origin of freshwater microbialites, carbonate structures that form in water with the help of microorganisms, in British Columbia’s Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake. Fossil microbialites represent some of the earliest traces of life on Earth. Today, microbialites are usually confined to environments that are often too harsh for most organisms. Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake are usual because they represent non-extreme environments where microbialites form alongside fish, plants, and other species.

Astrobiologists are interested in microbialites because they can shed light on the types of structures that microbes form and the biological signatures they leave behind. This may help to identify traces of life on other worlds. NASA and CSA are using DeepWorker submersibles, scuba, and underwater robots to explore both lakes. Goals are to map the distribution and characterize the morphology of microbialites, measure their growth rate, characterize the microbial community (bacteria, viruses, and algae) living in and on the microbialites, and identify biological, chemical, and physical factors that contribute to the formations.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project needs help from citizen scientists to tag and organize its vast collection of underwater photographs. Participants use a program called Mapper, available at get Citizen scientists have tagged over one million photographs since the tool went public in October, 2011.



Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2012 , Astrobiology

Penn State has an astrobiology project for citizen scientists. Researchers at Penn State are studying the biogeography of microorganisms in isolated pockets around the globe. They want to determine the degree to which populations are isolated and whether the isolation suggests an allopatric speciation model for prokaryotes.

For this study, researchers need water samples from domestic water heaters. They are seeking help from citizen scientists in 2-3 households per state. They’ve covered most of the US, but they’re still looking for households in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont.

The project requires only about 30 minutes. All you need to do is collect a sample of tap water and fill out a brief questionnaire. If you’re interested, go here.

Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Astrobiology

Ceres Earth Moon size comparison

The endless debate over NASA’s next destination resembles a food fight between the Moonmen and the Mars advocates. The near Earth asteroids get no respect from either side. That lack of respect seems kind of strange, considering some near-Earth asteroids have a potential ability to destroy all life on Earth. One would expect that sort of death-dealing ability to merit at least a little respect. Nevertheless, near-Earth asteroids are ridiculed as mere “rubble piles” and any proposed visit is a “mission to nowhere.”

Ultimately, this debate is silly. The only real answer to the designation question is “All of the Above.” If we develop low-cost access to space, supporting infrastructure such as propellant depots, and deep-space exploration exploration ships like JSC’s proposed Nautilus-X, we can go anywhere in the solar system. Without such capabilities, we’re going nowhere.

Having said that, let’s play the destination game just this once. We’d like to put in a pitch for a dark horse candidate.
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Written by Astro1 on March 30th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Space Exploration (General) Tags:

Filmaker and citizen explorer James Cameron has successfully piloted the Deepsea Challenger (also known as the “vertical torpedo”) to the deepest spot on Earth – the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench 300 miles southwest of Guam. (See the National Geographic report here.)

The Challenger Deep, 6.8 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, has only been explored once before. That was in 1960 by the bathyscaphe Trieste carrying Swiss explorer Jacques Picard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. The Trieste could only spend 20 minutes on the ocean bottom, however. Cameron spent about six hours on the bottom, filming the entire journey with 3D high-definition cameras. His submarine was also equipped with a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, and a “slurp gun” for picking up biological samples. Among the scientists waiting to see the samples are NASA astrobiologists. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 26th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizen Exploration, Oceanography

SETI Live is a new project that allows citizens scientists to participate in the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. The latest Zooniverse project, SETI Live was created by the SETI Institute in cooperation with the Adler Planetarium, the Science Channel, and the TED Conference.

The SETI Institute previously operated (and still operates) the SETI@home project, which has over 3 million subscribers. SETI@home is passive citizen science, however. Subscribers merely install the SETI@home software and donate computer cycles to the SETI project. The new project makes volunteers active participants who are actively analyzing data.

Written by Astro1 on March 3rd, 2012 , Astrobiology