HIGP scientist receives NASA award for research into life in universe

NASA has awarded five-year grants, each approximately $8 million, to three research teams that will study the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. Sarah Fagents, planetary volcanology researcher at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) is on the team studying Saturn’s moon, Titan.

“The single compelling question for this research is: What habitable environments exist on Titan and what resulting potential biosignatures should we look for?” said Fagents.

To address that question the team, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Rosaly Lopes, will use data gathered by the Cassini-Huygens mission, together with laboratory experiments and theoretical modeling, to investigate the interactions between the atmosphere, surface, and interior that may lead to the development and detection of biosignatures—indicators of past or present life. After the Cassini’s successful 13-year tour of the Saturn system, there is a wealth of data on Titan’s atmosphere, icy surface, subsurface ocean, and rocky interior that is ripe for analysis in this project.

Fagents will lead the team that aims to determine how biosignatures can be transported from the ocean to the surface and atmosphere and be recognized there. This will include investigation into the pathways for transport from ocean to surface and atmosphere, how molecules may be altered as they move from the subsurface ocean to the surface, and whether transport to the surface could result in habitable environments along the pathway.

However, her main focus will be studying the physical mechanisms by which fluids or ice can rise through the ice shell of Titan and emerge at the surface, a process termed “cryovolcanism.” This process would also carry any biosignatures that formed in the ocean or ice, thus giving scientists a chance to detect them.

“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 NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green.

“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,” said Mary Voytek, director of the Astrobiology Program at NASA Headquarters. “The new teams will complement our existing teams to cover breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI [NASA Astrobiology Institute], they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances.”

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