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Rensselaer Opens Center Dedicated to the Search for Life in the Universe

November 24, 2008

Rensselaer Opens Center Dedicated to the Search for Life in the Universe

Douglas Whittet (foreground), director of the New York Center for Astrobiology and professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy; Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer and professor of physics; and Paul Tonko, United States Congressmen Elect, at the Center's opening ceremonies.
Photo Credit: Rensselaer/Steven Morris

NASA awards $7.5 million grant to create the New York Center for Astrobiology

E.T. may have “phoned home” back in 1982, but in the world outside of popular cinema the hunt for extraterrestrial life continues. Today, with a $7.5 million grant from NASA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute extends the search with the opening of the New York Center for Astrobiology, which will be part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). 

With such developments as the recent detection of snow in the Martian atmosphere by the NASA Mars Phoenix Lander, scientists are advancing toward evidence of conditions for life in space. And as NASA continues to build its search for life, it has also begun to build its partnerships under the NAI. The NAI is a “virtual” institute of universities that combine their knowledge and expertise to advance our understanding of the origin and distribution of life in the universe. It is headquartered at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Based within the School of Science at Rensselaer, the New York Center for Astrobiology is devoted to investigating the origins of life on Earth and the conditions that lead to the formation of habitable planets in our own and other solar systems. The center includes researchers and students from a variety of research backgrounds and universities, including regional partners at the University at Albany and Syracuse University and national partners at the University of South Dakota and the University of Arizona. 

“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,” said Rensselaer 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.” 

Researchers and students within the New York Center for Astrobiology will seek to understand the chemical, physical, and geological conditions of early Earth that set the stage for life on our planet. They also will look beyond our home planet to investigate whether the processes that prepared the Earth for life could be replicated elsewhere, including on Mars and other bodies in the solar system. The center will be led by Douglas Whittet, professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer. 

“We are extremely grateful to NASA, to Rensselaer, and to our partner universities for their support of our research to uncover the origins of life,” Whittet said. “The new center continues where the original New York Center for the Studies on the Origins of Life supported by NASA left off and will involve faculty, undergraduate, graduate, and even junior and high school students in the exploration of space and the advancement of space science.” 

The goal of the research carried out in the New York Center for Astrobiology is to understand the cosmic history of the materials and processes that lead to the development of life. Tracing the evolutionary pathway from atoms to life involves the study of the formation of new molecules within interstellar clouds, the evolution of these molecules as the clouds condense to form new solar systems, and the mechanisms by which they are delivered and combined on planets like Earth and Mars to form suitable environments for life. A major research activity in the center will be to search for ways of detecting evidence of current or past life on Mars, building on current and future NASA missions devoted in understanding and analyzing the Red Planet. 

In addition to faculty research, the center will offer undergraduate and graduate students at Rensselaer and partner campuses a breadth of opportunities for research and course work in this emerging area of study. The center also will support a wide range of education and public outreach activities, hosting a seminar series on the origins of life featuring presentations by researchers from around the world and developing partnerships with the Greater Capital Region Teacher Center and with an area high school, to educate students and their teachers in this exciting field of study. The center also runs an annual Astrobiology Summer Camp for pre-college students (grades 6-8) such as last summer’s ExxonMobil/Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp at Rensselaer. As part of the program, young students are given the opportunity to perform research directly in the lab.

In addition to Whittet, faculty involved in the center includes Distinguished Teaching Professor John Delano of  the University at Albany, who is also associate director of the center; Professor of Earth Science at Syracuse University Suzanne Baldwin; Clinical Assistant Professor of Physics at Rensselaer Glenn Ciolek; Research Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rensselaer James Ferris; Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota Michael Gaffey; William Weightman Walker Professor and Head of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rensselaer Linda McGown; Professor of Physics at Rensselaer Wayne Roberge; Professor of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona Timothy Swindle; Institute Professor of Science at Rensselaer Bruce Watson.

For more information on the center and the research to be undertaken, go to: http://www.rpi.edu/research/astrobiology/ .

Contact: Gabrielle DeMarco
Phone: (518) 276-6542
E-mail: demarg@rpi.edu

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.