Welcome to Penn State Astrobiology Research Center. The Center is part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).
A major research focus of astrobiology is enabling the recognition of signatures of life on the early Earth, in extreme environments, and in extraterrestrial settings. Our team will develop novel approaches to detecting and characterizing life, investigate biosignatures in mission-relevant ecosystems and ancient rock and evaluate the potential for biosignatures in extraterrestrial settings.
Developing New Biosignatures
Our efforts will focus on creating innovative approaches for the analyses of cells and other organic material, finding ways in which metal abundances and isotope systems reflect life, and developing creative approaches for using environmental DNA to study present and past life.
Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks
The Earth’s Archean and Proterozoic eons offer the best opportunity for investigating a microbial world, such as might be found elsewhere in the cosmos. The ancient record on Earth provides an opportunity to see what geochemical signatures are produced by microbial life and how these signatures are preserved over geologic time.
Biosignatures in Relevant Microbial Ecosystems
We will investigate microbial life in some of Earth’s most mission-relevant ecosystems: the Dead Sea, the Chesapeake impact structure, the methane seeps of the Eel River Basin, and Greenland glacier ice.
Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings
We will investigate the abundance of sulfur gases and elucidate how these gases can be expected to evolve with time on young terrestrial planets. We will continue studies of planet formation in the presence of migration and model radial transport of volatiles in young planetary systems, and will also be involved with searches for M star planetary companions and planets around K-giant stars.
Katherine Freeman, professor of geosciences, Penn State, has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences for her excellence in original scientific research. Membership in the NAS is one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States. Like a paleontologist, Freeman uses fossil biomolecules -- biomarkers -- and the stable isotopes of carbon and other elements to study ancient oceans, soils and lakes. She has used lipid and pigment biomarkers from algae, plants and microbes to study the links between water and carbon cycles and changes in climate over Earth's history. Her work shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide is high during periods of warm climate, plant ecosystems rapidly shift with changes in rain patterns and that global oxygen levels in the ocean impact and are impacted by microbial communities.
Using the latest data, the Penn State Department of Geosciences team developed an updated model for determining whether discovered planets fall within a habitable zone – where they could be capable of having liquid water and thus sustaining life. The work, described in a paper accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal, builds on a prior model by James Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State, to offer a more precise calculation of where habitable zones around a star can be found. More information
The number of potentially habitable planets is greater than previously thought, according to a new analysis by a Penn State researcher, and some of those planets are likely lurking around nearby stars. "We now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take," said Ravi Kopparapu, a post-doctoral researcher in geosciences. "That is a conservative estimate," he added. "There could be more." Kopparapu detailed his findings in a paper accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters. In it, he recalculated the commonness of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of low-mass stars, also known as cool stars or M-dwarfs. More information
Susan L. Brantley was elected to the National Academy of Sciences on May 1, 2012. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific research and dedicated to advancing science and technology for the public good. Members are elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research, and it is arguably the highest honor that a U.S. scientist can receive. The nation's leaders in Congress and the White House often turn to the Academy for advice on scientific issues that often affect policy decisions. See (web site) for more information.