Carl Sagan once said “We are all star stuff.” But how? What does that really mean? One of the fundamental questions of astrobiology, how does life originate and evolve?, provides a structure in which to examine the relationship between life and the cosmos. Everywhere life has been found on Earth, which is essentially every place in which it has been sought, life’s intimate connection with water has also been found. Within the framework of contemplating life’s cosmic origins, one must also ask about the history of water on Earth. NASA’s Stardust mission has provided the opportunity for astrobiologists to gain deeper insight into this history.
Many scientists from the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) have been involved in the Stardust mission, spearheaded by none other than Stardust PI Don Brownlee at the University of Washington. The list also includes Scott Sandford of the NAI NASA Ames Team, lead author of one of the papers in this week’s Science
, and George Cody of the NAI Carnegie Institution of Washington Team.
“Comets are important to the understanding of the origin of life,” said Brownlee, “we have always considered Stardust an astrobiology mission.” Results from analysis of the Stardust samples have brought new insight to bear on the relationship between the inner and outer solar system. “The samples we’ve obtained from Stardust have helped us understand both the origin of water and other volatiles, as well as their delivery mechanisms to the early Earth,” said Brownlee.
The NAI has supported the groundwork needed for the complex analytical work demanded by the project. Brownlee’s postdoctoral student, Graciela Matrajt, who is funded by NAI, was able to prepare and image organic materials from the returned samples; a complex process considering the danger of overprinting the organics already resident on the equipment. Brownlee points out that this type of support “…has been critical in pushing the boundaries of our analytical capabilities.”
Brownlee notes, “The success of Stardust demonstrates the power of having samples in hand,” and urges the community to take the need for sample return missions more seriously. Part of NAI’s mission is to provide scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions. With leadership experience on Cassini-Huygens, MER, Deep Impact, MESSENGER, TPF, Kepler, MRO, MSL, and SIM to name a few, NAI is in a position to continue its pioneering role in helping NASA’s missions produce the best science possible. We have achieved our goal in supporting the success of Stardust.