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SU researchers partner with RPI in NASA-funded New York Center for Astrobiology

November 24, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

With today's opening of the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., Syracuse University researchers will join a national effort to advance the understanding of the origin and distribution of life in the Universe. Made possible by a $7.5 million, five-year grant from NASA, the center will be led by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from RPI in partnership with researchers from SU, the University at Albany, the University of South Dakota and the University of Arizona.

The RPI-led research team is one of 10 teams across the nation to receive a NASA award and become the newest members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, located at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Led by Douglas Whittet, professor of physics and astronomy at RPI, researchers at the New York Center for Astrobiology will focus on the chemical, physical and geological conditions of early Earth that set the stage for life on our planet. They will also look beyond Earth to investigate whether the processes that prepared the Earth for life could be replicated elsewhere, including Mars and other bodies in our solar system.

"The New York Center for Astrobiology builds on a legacy of discovery and collaboration developed over the past half century by NASA and scientists around the world, including right here at Rensselaer," says RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson. "The scientists in the center will help piece together the fragmented clues that could lead to the discovery of the first extraterrestrial life and the origins of the first life to appear here on Earth."

SU's role in the research is to uncover clues about conditions on early Earth that set the stage for life. Suzanne Baldwin, professor of earth sciences in SU's College of Arts and Sciences, will be leading the research team at SU. Her discoveries will be used by scientists in other fields to further knowledge about the timeline for establishing a habitable planet on Earth and in the Universe beyond.

"This project harnesses the talents of scientists, working in a variety of disciplines, who are addressing fundamental questions about the origin of life," Baldwin says. "The researchers in my lab are rock detectives. Our experiments reveal when minerals were formed and under what conditions. Ultimately, we want to know how the Earth has evolved over geologic time and in particular what was early Earth like when life originated on our planet?"

During their earliest history, the Earth and the moon were bombarded by meteorites. The constant bombardment, scientists believe, would have delayed the formation of life on Earth. Lunar glass was formed by the violent collisions between meteorites and the moon's surface. Baldwin's lab will analyze the behavior of the noble gas argon in lunar glass to refine estimates of when it formed. If argon diffuses out of the glass after it is formed, it could mean the age of the impact event that led to the glass formation is underestimated. The information will help astrobiologists gain a better understanding of when it was possible for the earliest life forms to develop on Earth.

Baldwin's lab will also analyze the mineral jarosite, which forms on the surface of Earth and also on Mars. Results will provide information that future scientists can use to study Martian jarosite samples, which may someday be returned to Earth, to provide clues to the conditions that existed on Mars when the mineral formed. Finally, Baldwin's lab will use minerals from volcanic rocks on Earth to extract information about the timing of volcanic activity and the composition of gases released into the atmosphere during volcanic eruptions.

"This is interdisciplinary science at its best," Baldwin says. "New knowledge will be gained at the interface of astrobiology, astronomy, astrophysics, geochemistry and earth science. This award will fund a team of scientists who are all interested in the same questions: How did life begin on Earth? How do we detect life during early Earth's evolution? And is there life in the Universe beyond Earth?"

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