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Astronomical News - October 1998

 

From:   Ron Baalke
Sent:   Wednesday, September 30, 1998 10:01 PM
To:     astro@lists.mindspring.com
Subject:   [ASTRO] University Of Washington Prepares First Graduate
           Program In Astrobiology
University of Washington
FROM: Vince Stricherz, 206-935-7430, vinces@u.washington.edu

 

Contacts:
James Staley: (206) 543-0461 or (206) 543-6646 or e-mail at
jstaley@u.washington.edu.
Woodruff Sullivan: (206) 543-7773 or (206) 543-2888 or e-mail at
woody@astro.washington.edu.
Conway Leovy: (206) 543-4952 or e-mail at leovy@atmos.washington.edu.
Richard Gammon: (206) 543-1609 or (206) 543-4301 or e-mail at
gammon@u.washington.edu.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Sept. 30, 1998
UW prepares for first graduate program in astrobiology to train those who
will hunt for life in outer space
The University of Washington is poised to become the first institution
anywhere to launch a doctoral program specifically geared to train
scientists to search for life on celestial bodies such as Mars or Europa,
an icy moon of Jupiter.
The astrobiology program will be financed by a 5-year, $2 million grant
announced today by the National Science Foundation and supplemented by
$500,000 from the university.
The highly interdisciplinary curriculum will involve 11 UW degree programs --
Oceanography, Astronomy, Aeronautics & Astronautics, Genetics, Chemistry,
Biochemistry, Microbiology, Atmospheric Sciences, Geophysics, Geological
Sciences and History. Graduates can receive degrees in any of those areas,
with an endorsement noting an emphasis in astrobiology.
The School of Oceanography will provide dedicated laboratory space for
students to study organisms that live in extreme conditions. Oceanography
professors John Delaney and Jody Deming and associate professor John Baross
have closely studied organisms living in high-temperature, high-pressure
conditions in ocean environments where little light penetrates. 
Baross is trying to relate the conditions in which those organisms live now to
conditions when life began on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.
Two entities outside the university also are participating. The Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory in Richland will offer students a chance to
study microbial life in the subterranean basalt formations in Eastern
Washington. ZymoGenetics Inc. of Seattle, a subsidiary of Novo Nordisk A/S
of Denmark that is interested in enzymes from unusual bacteria, is offering
summer internships so students can pursue that work.
"We recognize that there is a good possibility that life exists in the solar
system outside Earth, but if that life does exist it would be microbial, not
the higher forms," said James Staley, a UW microbiology professor who is the
principal investigator for astrobiology.
Likely sites for such life are Mars, where there is evidence of water, or
the ice-clad moon Europa. The key to finding life in such forbidding
environments is understanding how life exists in extreme conditions on Earth
-- such as hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, undersea vents where no
sunlight penetrates and temperatures reach several hundred degrees, pools of
brine within polar sea ice, and volcanic basalt formations.
"We have microbial systems on Earth that are good models for those on Mars
or Europa, and those systems are poorly studied," Staley said. He added that
such life forms were the precursor to advanced life on Earth, so their
presence on other planets could signal the eventual evolution of advanced
life there, as well.
The idea for an astrobiology program grew out of a special seminar, Planets
and Life, offered at the university in 1996 shortly after the discovery of
planets orbiting nearby stars and an announcement that NASA scientists
possibly had found microbial fossils inside a Martian rock. That claim since
has drawn much scientific skepticism, but the success of the seminar -- it
was attended by 30 graduate students and 20 post-doctoral researchers and
faculty, and it sparked much campus excitement -- laid a foundation for a
program in astrobiology.
Woodruff Sullivan, a UW astronomy professor and adjunct history professor,
spearheaded the seminar and is an astrobiology co-investigator. He expects
about a dozen students when the program begins in the fall quarter of 1999.
But there is much to be done before then. Five new courses must be designed
to complement existing courses that will be included in the curriculum,
Sullivan said. Departments involved will have to devise different ways of
testing and grading students involved in astrobiology, since an astrobiology
student pursuing a degree in astronomy, for instance, will have
significantly different course demands than other astronomy students.
One-third of astrobiology course work will be in areas not closely related
to the student's home department, so an astronomy astrobiology student might
spend a great deal of time studying microbiology.
Students also must take part in an annual workshop, three days of work in
the field. It could be looking for microbes at the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation, Sullivan said, or using an electron microscope to study comet
dust. "Everyone will have to get their hands dirty."
Conway Leovy, a UW atmospheric sciences professor and also a co-investigator,
expects the program to be an education for faculty members as well as students.
But he said the students will be particularly challenged as they blaze a new
path, and it will be some time before the first doctoral degrees in
astrobiology are awarded.
"Astrobiology students will have to learn rigorously as well as more broadly
than most other science graduate students," Leovy said. "We probably can't
expect to see the fruits of our efforts in the form of many Ph. D. graduates
sooner than five years from now."
Richard Gammon, who is a UW chemistry and oceanography professor and also is
an adjunct professor of atmospheric sciences, helped write a financing
proposal for the astrobiology degree program. He believes the approach of
breaching traditional barriers between different science disciplines was a
key to National Science Foundation support.
"All of these efforts are to meet the needs of students of the future, who
are going to need training across fields," Gammon said.
The UW is one of 17 universities sharing in $40.5 million in National
Science Foundation graduate education and research training grants. For more
information about the NSF program, visit http://www.nsf.gov/igert/ on the
World Wide Web.

 

 

From:   AIP listserver
Sent:   Monday, September 28, 1998 2:11 PM
To:     physnews-mailing@aip.org
Subject:   update.393
PHYSICS NEWS UPDATE                         
The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News
Number 393 September 28, 1998   by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben
Stein
THE EXTRASOLAR PLANET PARADE continues with the
discovery of two new planets with unique features.  As before,
astronomers Geoffrey Marcy (San Francisco State) and Paul Butler
(Anglo-Australian Observatory) have inferred the presence of the
planets from their observed influence on the companion star.  One
of the new objects orbits its star (HD187123) in a mere three days
in an orbit 9 times closer than Mercury's around our sun. The other
new planet has a very Earth-like orbit of 437 days around star
HD21027.  This comes as a reassurance to those who were
beginning to wonder whether Earth was an anomaly; all previously
discovered extrasolar planets have had orbits much smaller or much
larger than Earth's. (San Francisco State University press release,
23 September 1998.)
MILLIKELVIN MOLECULES can now be clasped in the same sort
of magnetic trap used  to chill atoms down to nanokelvins. 
Molecules are extended objects and not so easily cooled by laser
beams, normally the first step in cooling several atom species to
ultracold temperatures.  Instead, Harvard researchers put calcium-
monohydride molecules on the road to refrigeration by mixing them
with a buffer gas of helium.  Thereafter they were cold enough to
load into a system of magnetic fields where the more energetic
molecules are allowed to escape.  This evaporative cooling brings
the molecular temperature to below 1 K, opening up a new regime
for collision studies and spectroscopy of cold molecules. 
(Weinstein et al., Nature, 10 September 1998.)
MILKY WAY IN THE LABORATORY?  A plasma with a
spiral-shaped pattern of particle density, similar to that of the Milky
Way galaxy, has been created stably in the laboratory, supporting
the possibility that fluid dynamics effects rather than gravitational
ones may be responsible for our home galaxy's structure.  Injecting
a hot argon plasma (rotating at supersonic speeds) into a cold,
stationary argon gas, researchers in Japan (Takashi Ikehata,Ibariki
University,  ikehata@ee.ibaraki.ac.jp) observed a spiral-armed
structure (with low-density halos of charged particles) that persisted
for as long as they kept rotating the plasma. The vortices that
typically appear in such hot plasmas became spirals because of the
outward "centrifugal" forces introduced by the rotation.  Curiously,
the spiral structure was not observed to form in the absence of the
stationary gas, suggesting that the fluid dynamics interactions
between the gas and plasma are central to the spiral formation
process.  This experiment intensifies the fascinating (and still
undecided) question of whether similar interactions occur between
hot, bright stars (corresponding to the plasma) and gas clouds
(analogous to the stationary gas) to form spiral galaxies.    (Ikehata
et al., Physical Review Letters, 31 August 1998.)
A TRAVEL GUIDE TO EUROPEAN SCIENCE would proceed
from London to Paris to Moscow to Amsterdam.  These cities,
according to Institute of Scientific Information (ISI), were
responsible for the greatest number of published scientific papers
during the period 1994-1996.  If one ranks by per-capita output the
order of top European cities becomes Cambridge, Oxford, and then
Geneva/Lausanne.  In the field of physics the leaders in producing
papers are Moscow, Paris, Geneva, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw. 
Narrowing further to condensed matter physics, the order begins
with two Russian cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, followed by
Paris, Berlin, and Stuttgart. (Science, 21 August 1998.)

 

 

From:   Linda Porter
Sent:   Tuesday, September 29, 1998 2:11 PM
To:     express-delivery@sslab.msfc.nasa.gov
Subject:   Sept 29 NASA Science News: Crusty young star flashes Earth
Crusty young star makes its presence felt - Gamma ray flash zaps satellites,
illuminates Earth, and sheds light on several mysterious stellar events.
Full Story:
    http://science.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast29sep98_1.htm
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     with just one word in the body of the message: "signoff"
     (don't put quotes around the word!)
     ========================================
Linda Porter
Code ES94
Data Systems Branch
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
Huntsville AL  35812
(256)544-7588
(256)544-7128 (fax)
linda.porter@msfc.nasa.gov

 

http://science.nasa.gov/

 

 

 

 


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