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    • By NASA
      NASA-supported scientists have examined the long and intricately linked history of microbial life and the Earth’s environment. By reviewing the current state of knowledge across fields like microbiology, molecular biology, and geology, the study looks at how microorganisms have both shaped and been shaped by chemical properties of our planet’s oceans, land, and atmosphere. The study combines data across multiple fields of study and discusses how information on the complicated history of life on our planet from a single field cannot be viewed in isolation.
      An artist interpretation of the hazy atmosphere of Archean Earth – a pale orange dot. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy The first life on Earth was microbial. Today the vast majority of our planet’s biomass is still made up of tiny, single-celled microorganisms. Although they’re abundant, the history of microbes can be a challenge for astrobiologists to study. Microbes don’t leave bones, shells or other large fossils behind like dinosaurs, fish or other large organisms. Because of this, scientists must look at different evidence to understand the evolution of microbial life through time.
      In order to study ancient microbes on Earth, astrobiologists look for isotopic fingerprints in rocks that can be used to identify the metabolisms of ancient communities. Metabolism refers to the conversion of food into energy, and happens in all living things. Many elements (think carbon (C), nitrogen (N), Sulfur (S), iron (Fe)) are involved in microbial metabolism. As microbes process these elements, they cause isotopic changes that scientists can spot in the rock record. Microbes also help to control how these elements are deposited and cycled in the environment, affecting geology and chemistry at both local and global scales (consider the role of microbes in the carbon cycle on Earth today).
      This photograph shows a section of the Marble Bar formation in the Pilbara region of north-western Western Australia. The bands of color in the rock are the result of high amounts of certain minerals, including iron, that may have resulted from microbial activity on the ancient Earth. NASA Astrobiology/Mike Toillion For an example of geological evidence of microbial metabolism, we can consider the formation of banded iron formations (BIFs) on the ancient seafloor. These colorful layers of alternating iron- and silicon-rich sediment were formed from 3.8 billion to 1.8 billion years ago and are associated with some of the oldest rock formations on Earth. The red colors they exhibit are from their high iron content, showing us that the ocean of Earth was rich in iron during the 2 billion years in which these rocks were forming.
      Another way to study ancient microbial life is to look back along the evolutionary information contained in the genetics of life today. Combining this genetic information from molecular biology with geobiological information from the rock record can help astrobiologists understand the connections between the shared evolution of the early Earth and early life.
      In the new study, the team of researchers provide a review of current knowledge, gleaning information into the early metabolisms used by microbial life, the timing of when these metabolisms evolved, and how these processes are linked to major chemical and physical changes on Earth, such as the oxygenation of the oceans and atmosphere.
      Over time, the prevalence of oxygen on Earth has varied dramatically, in the ocean, in the atmosphere, and on land. These changes impacted both the evolution of the biosphere and the environment. For instance, as the activity of photosynthetic organisms raised oxygen levels in the atmosphere, creating new environments for microbial life to inhabit. Different nutrients were made accessible to life to fuel growth. At the same time, microbes that couldn’t survive in the presence of oxygen had to adapt, perish, or find a way to survive in environments where oxygen didn’t persist, such as deep in the Earth’s subsurface.
      Rocks along the shoreline of Lake Salda in Turkey were formed over time by microbes that trap minerals in the water. These microbialites were once a major form of life on Earth. The new study explains our understanding of how oxygen levels have changed over time and spatial scales. The authors map different types of microbial metabolism, such as photosynthesis, to this history to better understand the “cause-and-effect relationship” between oxygen and the evolution of life on Earth. The paper provides important context for major changes in the course of evolution for the biosphere and the planet.
      By carefully considering the history of different types of microbial metabolisms on Earth, the review paper shows how biogeochemical cycles on our planet are inextricably linked through time over both local and global scales. The authors also discuss significant gaps in our knowledge that limit interpretations. For instance, we do not know how large the young biosphere on Earth was, which limits our ability to estimate the global effects of various metabolisms during Earth’s earliest years. Similarly, when using genetic information to look back along the tree of life, scientists can estimate when certain genes first appeared (and thereby what types of metabolisms could have been used at the time in living cells). However, the evolution of a new type of metabolism at a point in history does not necessarily mean that that metabolism was common or had a large enough effect in the environment to leave evidence in the rock record.
      According to the authors, “The history of microbial life marched in step with the history of the
      oceans, land and atmosphere, and our understanding remains limited by how much we still do not know about the environments of the early Earth.”
      This is an illustration of exoplanet WASP-39 b, also known as Bocaprins. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope provided the most detailed analysis of an exoplanet atmosphere ever with WASP-39 b analysis released in November 2022. Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) showed unambiguous evidence for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, while previous observations from NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, as well as other telescopes, indicate the presence of water vapor, sodium, and potassium. The planet probably has clouds and some form of weather, but it may not have atmospheric bands like those of Jupiter and Saturn. This illustration is based on indirect transit observations from Webb as well as other space and ground-based telescopes. Webb has not captured a direct image of this planet. NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI) The study also has wider implications in the search for life beyond Earth. Understanding the co-evolution of life and the environment can help scientists better understand the conditions necessary for a planet to be habitable. The interconnections between life and the environment also provide important clues in the search for biosignature gases in the atmospheres of planets that orbit distant stars.
      The study, “Co‐evolution of early Earth environments and microbial life,” was published in the journal Nature Reviews. Additional information on the study is available from the University of California, Riverside.
      Click here to return to the NASA Astrobiology page.
      View the full article
    • By Space Force
      Air Marshal Paul Godfrey took the position June 17 and will serve the U.S. Space Force as assistant chief of Space Operations for Future Concepts and Partnerships after three years as the first commander of the U.K. Space Command.

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    • By Space Force
      Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force John F. Bentivegna and Lt. Gen. DeAnna Burt, deputy chief of Space Operations for Operations, Cyber and Nuclear, delivered remarks at the Joint Women's Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Virginia, June 26 and 27.

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    • By NASA
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      Preparations for Next Moonwalk Simulations Underway (and Underwater)
      NASA’s Flight Opportunities program sent two university payloads on suborbital flight tests onboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity on June 8 when it launched from Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
      The payloads carrying scientific research from University of California, Berkeley and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, align with critical technology needs that NASA has identified in pursuit of the agency’s space commerce and exploration goals. The payload from UC Berkeley, studied a new type of 3D printing and the payload from Purdue studied how sloshing of liquid propellant affects spacecraft direction.
      The need to print building materials in space without having to transport them will be critical in the coming years as humans live and work in space for longer durations. Optimizing spacecraft and satellite design will help us increase the rate of scientific discoveries both here on our home planet and on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. 
      “Our program enables researchers to move from the lab to flight test rapidly, and in many cases, multiple flight tests across different commercial vehicles. This allows them the invaluable opportunity to learn from initial tests, implement improvements, and then fly again – or as we like to say, ‘fly, fix, fly,’” said Danielle McCulloch, program manager for Flight Opportunities at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.
      Photo credit: Virgin Galactic
      Last Updated Jun 11, 2024 EditorDede DiniusContactSarah Mannsarah.mann@nasa.gov Related Terms
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    • By Space Force
      For the first time since 1968, astronauts were launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, the first time ever from a Space Force installation, June 5.

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