NASA program to incite interest in finding extraterrestrial life

While NASA recently has been focused on finding any traces of life on Mars, today it announced a program to encourage research beyond our solar system.

The space agency said new Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowships in Exoplanet Exploration, will encourage research into planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, which NASA said are being discovered at a staggering pace, with more than 300 currently known.  In June alone scientists' announced nine new exoplanet discoveries, including five "super-Earths" - small, possibly rocky planets just a few times larger than our own, NASA said.

These miniature planets range in size from 4.2 to 22 times the mass of Earth and were found during a five-year survey by the European Southern Observatory telescope in Chile, which can observe how stars wobble back and forth as they are pulled by the gravity of the planets that orbit them, NASA said.

And recently,  NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have made observations of hot, Jupiter-like planets orbiting other stars. The telescopes detected methane and water in the planets'  atmospheres -- the same molecules that might serve as tracers of life if discovered around smaller, rocky planets in the future.

NASA's Sagan fellowships will award stipends of about $60,000 per year, for a period of up to three years, to research projects on far away stars and planets.

 The Sagan Fellowship will join NASA's new Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship in Physics of the Cosmos and the Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cosmic Origins. NASA said all three fellowships represent a new theme-based approach, in which fellows will focus on compelling scientific questions, such as "are there Earth-like planets orbiting other stars?"

A call for Sagan Fellowship proposals went out to the scientific community earlier this week, with selections to be announced in February 2009.

NASA has a number of missions slotted that will also explore these exoplanets. Its Kepler Mission, scheduled to launch in 2009, will survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to detect and characterize hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets.  SIM PlanetQuest, to follow Kepler, will measure the distances and positions of stars with unprecedented accuracy, NASA said.  SIM's precision will let NASA locate planets in the habitable zones around nearby stars.

Finally, the Terrestrial Planet Finder telescope was to build upon the legacy Hubble, offering imaging power 100 times greater than the Hubble.  But NASA has shelved this project indefinitely.

Meanwhile NASA recently said it wants help designing the outer space network it will use to back up future trips to the moon and perhaps beyond.  The space agency last month issued a broad Request for Information or RFI to solicit ideas from private companies and researchers interested in potentially providing communications and navigation services that would support the development of exploration, scientific and commercial capabilities on the moon over the next 25 years.

NASA is looking to define what will ultimately be the essential communication and navigation network requirements as well as identify network architecture options including: terrestrial network services, Earth-based ground stations, Earth- and lunar-orbiting satellites and lunar surface equipment. 

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