NASA Is Giving $8 Million Grants For The Study Of Life In The Universe

How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and, if so, how can we detect it? What is the future of life in the universe? These are the important questions that three select research teams will have to find answers to during the next five years.

The three teams have just been chosen to join the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and will receive five-year grants, each amounting to roughly $8 million, to study the origins of life in the universe and how it will evolve in the future.

NASA made the big announcement yesterday, noting the vital contribution that these interdisciplinary research groups will bring to the agency’s astrobiology program.

According to the NASA news release, these are three teams selected to become members of the NAI.

  • Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors (ENIGMA), from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
  • The Astrobiology Center for Isotopologue Research (ACIR), from Pennsylvania State University.
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California.

On one hand, the ENIGMA team will be focusing on the study of prebiotic molecules and enzymes to see how the evolution of proteins led to the creation of life on Earth. The team is led by Prof. Paul Falkowski and will be looking at ancestral molecules and enzymes common to many of the known types of microbes.

On the other hand, the ACIR project, helmed by Prof. Kate Freeman, will use advanced observational and computational tools to scope the molecular elements in organic compounds, from both planetary environments and metabolic systems, in an effort to unlock the mysteries of their origin and evolution.

In addition, the JPL research group will be analyzing data from the Cassini-Huygens mission to uncover whether life is likely to exist — either now or in the future — on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The team is being led by Dr. Rosaly Lopes and will assess the types of habitable environments that Titan may be harboring, looking for potential signatures of life in the moon’s atmosphere, as well as under its surface.

“With NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite on its way to discover new worlds around our nearest stellar neighbors, Cassini’s discovery of the ingredients necessary for life in Enceladus’s plumes, and with Europa Clipper and Mars 2020 on the horizon, these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise needed to help interpret data from these missions and future astrobiology-focused missions,” said Jim Green, NASA chief scientist, said in the news release.

According to Mary Voytek, who runs the NASA Astrobiology Program, the newly-selected teams “will complement” the rest of the NAI research groups and make interdisciplinary connections to “stimulate fundamental scientific advances.”

Voytek also commented on the role of astrobiology in understanding how life evolved in the universe.

“The intellectual scope of astrobiology is vast, from understanding how our planet became habitable and inhabited, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth’s harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life.”