Astrobiology on the Cheap

by Paul Gilster on November 26, 2010

Keeping space missions separate can be a difficult challenge when so many satellites are launched on a single rocket. Take O/OREOS (Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses). The small satellite rode into space on an Air Force Minotaur IV rocket on the 19th, a launch we noted here in connection with the NanoSail-D solar sail demonstrator. For NanoSail-D was itself carried into space as part of the FASTSAT payload bus (Fast, Affordable Science and Technology Satellite), and FASTSAT and O/OREOS were subsumed under a mission called Space Test Program S26. Not to mention a number of other satellites from universities and industry that hitched a ride on the same booster.

All of this produces not just confusion but acronym fatigue. Nonetheless, interesting science is in the works. O/OREOS is all about conducting astrobiology science experiments on the cheap using nanosatellites (CubeSats), helping scientists plan future experiments on how organic molecules are changed by exposure to space. Says Pascale Ehrenfreund (a project scientist at George Washington University:

“The O/OREOS science team is excited to receive the first real-time measurements from samples onboard two science experiments. This will demonstrate that CubeSat technologies can be used for future missions to address fundamental astrobiology objectives.”

The satellite will conduct experiments, some lasting as long as six months, autonomously after receiving the command from the ground station in Santa Clara, California. The Space Environment Viability of Organics experiment (SEVO) aims to monitor four classes of organic molecules as they are exposed to space conditions, using molecules now known to be widely distributed throughout the galaxy. The organics, housed in micro-environments, are to be exposed to radiation through solar ultraviolet as well as visible light, trapped particle radiation (i.e., energetic protons and electrons trapped by the Earth’s magnetosphere) and cosmic radiation. Researchers will look for changes in UV, visible and near-infrared light absorption.

Image: This artist’s concept represents complex organic molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These large molecules, comprised of carbon and hydrogen, are distributed throughout the Milky Way and other galaxies like it. They play a significant role in star and planet formation and are very common on Earth. They form any time carbon-based materials are not burned completely. They can be found in sooty exhaust from cars and airplanes, and in charcoal broiled hamburgers and burnt toast. Aromatic molecules identified in meteorites might have been beneficial to the origin of life on Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Space Environment Survivability of Live Organisms (SESLO) payload, meanwhile, will look at the activity of microorganisms adapting to the space environment, measuring their growth and health while exposed to weightlessness and radiation. The experiment will grow sets of microbes — Halorubrum chaoviatoris and Bacillus subtilis — of the kind found in salt ponds and soil in a dried and dormant state. The O/OREOS researchers will measure their population density and color changes while the microbes consume dyed liquid ingredients.

CubeSats are a useful way to proceed because they’re so much less expensive than the alternatives, as Ehrenfreund notes:

“Secondary payload nanosatellites, like O/OREOS are an innovative way to extend and enhance scientists’ opportunities to conduct research in low Earth orbit by providing an alternative to the International Space Station or space shuttle investigations. With O/OREOS we can analyze the stability of organics in the local space environment in real-time and test flight hardware that can be used for future payloads to address fundamental astrobiology objectives.”

All of that, of course, plays into the much larger picture of contributing to our knowledge of life’s origin and distribution in the universe. Not bad for a nanosatellite no larger than a loaf of bread that weighs a mere 5.4 kg, operating in a low-Earth orbit some 644 kilometers above the surface. O/OREOS is the first NASA cubesat to fly with two distinct and independent science experiments on an autonomous satellite, and is constructed from off-the-shelf commercial and NASA-designed parts to operate as an automated, self-contained space laboratory. The O/OREOS mission dashboard is operational, as is the Twitter feed @NASA_OOREOS.

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Carl Keller November 26, 2010 at 13:12

Nanosatellites are not true nano machines, but they can help pave the way to them: doing with smaller devices. The early years of space flight saw the transistor in use with its by-products of small size, weight, and power demands very useful. The transistor’s chief asset is its briefer propagation delay; it’s potentially speedier than its preceding technology of vacuum tubes.

Needle craft and von Neumann machines have been a frequent topic here. Performance data of the cubesats will be helpful in the development of the more miniaturized, and more capable, technologies.

spaceman November 28, 2010 at 2:30

The opening post mentions exposure of the organic molecules housed in the Space Environment Viability of Organics experiment to “space conditions.” As far as weightlessness, the condition is met by the placement in LEO. However, one of the main criticisms of the ISS is that it is too close to Earth to give us an accurate handle on how our tests subjects would fare in the radiation environment of interplanetary, interstellar, or intergalactic space. So, the scope of the current nanosat missions seems similarly limited—that is, they will give us a highly biased version of space conditions just like the ISS does, namely the space conditions of LEO, which is well within Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Earth’s magnetosphere provides protection from deadly cosmic rays, protection without which life as we know it could not survive. It would be great if the same very valid basic idea of sending small relatively inexpensive nanosat experiments could be extended to deep space.

Matt November 28, 2010 at 12:31

Paul,

I am a fan of your blog and have been reading as often as I can for the last year or so. Not as much lately, with a new job, but still like to get in and skim. This is a general question for how topics like this — astrobiology, exoplanets, atmospheres of exoplanets, etc — are covered. I’ll warn you that this might seem like a small issue to you, but I think it leads to a series of incorrect assumptions. Basically, my issue is with verb tense.

When we talk about atmospheres of planets around other stars, we’re talking about atmospheres that existed a long time ago, relative to how far away the planet is from us, the point of observation. While discovering that planets exist at all, and that atmospheres conducive to what we know as life exist at all, is absolutely thrilling, why is it rarely, if ever, pointed out that what we’re observing right now hasn’t existed in that state for a very, very long time. It seems to me that this should be a standard byline, or warning. A reporter who unearthed a cache of diaries and letters written mobsters in the 30s wouldn’t report on it as if the mobsters were still alive, bringing booze across the Canadian border, yet science reporters and even the scientists themselves always speak about events far away and, hence, long ago as if they were happening concurrent with our own reality.

This isn’t always the case, of course — I’m recalling several stories on supernovas that reminds the reader that the star exploded many, many years in the past and the light is just now reaching us. This observation seems to be much less prevalent when talking about exoplanets and the like.

As I said, it probably seems slight to most anyone else, but to me it seems like everyone’s ignoring a crucial bit of reality.

Paul Gilster November 28, 2010 at 14:36

Matt, the reason I don’t worry much about exoplanet atmospheres in terms of light travel-time — and the fact that what we’re seeing is actually the way things were a certain time in the past — is that the exoplanets we’re studying now just aren’t that far away in astronomical terms (except for a few gravitational microlensing finds). Sure, we’re seeing Gl 581 and its planets as they were 20 years ago, but this doesn’t seem like much in the context of planetary evolution. For that matter, a planet 1000 light years away is still showing us a slice of its existence that’s probably not altered much if at all by that 1000 years.

Supernovae, of course, are a different matter, as are distant galaxies and the like. So while I take your point, I don’t see it as a major issue for exoplanet studies. Now if we start making detections at huge distances — in another galaxy, for example — then the issue becomes more pertinent.

Matt December 2, 2010 at 22:52

Thanks for the response! Some great points.

Mike Prather December 13, 2010 at 18:51

Thanks very much for the term “acronym fatigue”. I thought the IT world was bad (where worth is not always determined by skills and experience but by how many acronyms you can rattle off) but all the science, space and military project worlds must be positively drowning in it!

ljk January 19, 2011 at 4:37

Funding the search for life in the solar system

Advances in astrobiology have expanded the range of potential sites in the solar system that could support life. Lou Friedman discusses how to make it possible to afford exploring all those sites.

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1758/1

ljk July 11, 2012 at 17:11

A paper on the first uses of term astrobiology.

Abstract…

The research of life in Universe is a ancient quest that has taken different forms over the centuries. It has given rise to a new science, which is normally referred as Astrobiology. It is interesting to research when this word was used for the first time and when this science developed to represent the search for life in Universe as is done today.

There are records of the usage of the word “Astrobiology” as early as 1935, in an article published in a French popular science magazine. Moreover this article is quite remarkable because its portrayal of the concept of the subject is very similar to that considered today.

The author of this paper was Ary J. Sternfeld (1905 – 1980), who was ortherwise known as a poorly respected great pioneer of astronautics. We provide a brief description of his life, which was heavily influenced by the tragic events of the 20th century history, from Poland and France to Russia. He was a prolific scientific writer who wrote a number of very successful scientific books and papers.

“Is it the first use of the word Astrobiology ?” by Danielle Briot

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1207/1207.1491.pdf

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