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Drone mission to Saturn's moon discussed at Bellevue astrobiology conference

Scientists from around the globe gathered in Bellevue to share new findings pertaining to outer space.

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Editor's note: The above video is from a story published on June 27, 2019.

Scientists from a wide range of disciplines converged in Bellevue recently to discuss the latest science in pursuit of finding life beyond Earth. 

Roughly 1,000 scientists from across the globe attended AbSciCon, a conference dedicated to astrobiology research.

A big moment of the conference was NASA’s announcement of a new mission to send a drone to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

Titan is unique, with a landscape made of mountains of ice, carved by liquid methane that rains down from the thick atmosphere forming rivers and lakes. It is the only planetary body in our solar system besides Earth known to have bodies of stable liquid on its surface — a good place to look for signs of life.

This will be the first NASA mission to send a drone to another planetary body. 

“Flying on Titan is actually easier than flying on Earth, the atmosphere is thicker and the gravity is one seventh of Earth’s gravity," explained Dr. Elizabeth ‘Zibi’ Turtl, head of the NASA science team

The drone, named “Dragonfly,” will be able to fly around the surface of Titan, taking pictures and analyzing samples of the surface to look for amino acids (the building blocks of proteins and DNA)

While the NASA announcement generated buzz, the research presented at the Bellevue conference remained the focus. 

A wide range of scientific disciplines are encompassed by the “astrobiology” umbrella.

Researchers are working on a variety of projects:  

A different kind of intelligence

Octopus suckers can communicate with each other and they can use their arms to make decisions without the information going through the brain first, according to new research by Dominic Sivitilli, a behavioral neuroscience graduate student at University of Washington.

Why was he talking about octopuses at an astrobiology conference? 

Sivitilli said, “Octopuses evolved over 500 million years in parallel to vertebrate-like intelligence. We’ve had two very different paths to cognitive complexity. So I’m using them as a model for understanding the diversity of forms of cognition.”

The research was conducted with Giant Pacific octopuses and East Pacific red octopuses collected by Sivitilli and others at the UW Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Islands.

Spores in space

“Mold is everywhere, there’s no real way to prevent it,' molecular biologist Marta Cortesão said.

Astronauts on the International Space Station know this all too well. They spend hours every week cleaning the walls to keep mold from becoming a health hazard. 

New research presented by Cortesão at AbSciCon on suggests that mold could also be a concern on the outer surfaces of space crafts.

In her research conducted at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, Cortesão exposed spores of the same varieties found on the space station, Aspergillus and Pennicillium, to high doses of radiation. She found that they could survive radiation doses as much as 200 times the doses lethal to humans.

When decontaminating space crafts were sent to other planetary bodies like Mars, space agencies have typically focused on bacterial contamination. 

Cortesão’s research suggests they should also be looking for fungus. 

Contamination of Mars by organisms from Earth is a concern for scientists looking for life on the red planet.  

Credit: NASA

“I think it’s likely that we sent something to Mars,” said Cortesão, “but I’m not sure if anything would have survived.” 

She explained that while the spores survived high doses of radiation, they have yet to explore other factors like exposure to a vacuum or high temperatures.

The news isn’t all bad, though. “Mold is used to produce antibiotics and vitamins, so this is good news for long-term missions that may need to produce those things.” said Cortesão.

Minerals on Mars

Oxalate minerals are perhaps best known for being the minerals that make up kidney stones, but planetary scientist Miché Aaron thinks they could also hold a key to understanding past life on Mars. 

“They can survive harsh environments like the acid environment on Mars, and they have a strong association with life on Earth. Vegetation loves oxalates,"  Aaron explained.

Aaron looks for the presence of oxalate minerals on Mars using data collected by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, along with analyses performed on the planet’s surface by the Mars Rover.

She has identified several locations on the surface of Mars where the minerals may be present, but more work is needed to say for sure. Her results may help guide decisions about where future Martian missions aim their focus.

In addition to her research, Aaron has garnered attention for her work supporting people of color in the sciences. She was part of the McNair Scholars program—a federal program that supports research opportunities for first-generation college students and groups underrepresented in graduate research. 

The program is named after Dr. Ronald McNair, a NASA astronaut who died tragically in the Challenger spaceship explosion, and the second African American to fly in space.

After dealing firsthand with the challenges of applying to graduate school as a first-generation student, she amassed and shared a list of resources for people of color applying to graduate programs in STEM fields. 

She attended a session at AbSciCon focused on the issue of diversity and inclusion, an ongoing issue in STEM fields. 

“As a black woman, I know that there are times that I will be by myself in this field. To see that there was a session focused on diversity and inclusion, that made me feel really good. The less I feel like an outsider on this path, the better I feel about it, even though it wouldn’t stop me to be an outsider."