Research Areas

Spaceward Bound India Science Team is divided into 4 main groups as seen below. Each team is headed by an Indian researcher and supported by a Spaceward Bound veteran/astrobiologist along with research assistants from his/her lab. This has been done to engage Indian researchers with astrobiological fieldwork and enable them to help participating researchers explore and traverse the planned transects in Ladakh region.

More information on the Science Team participants can be found here

1a – Microbial Diversity Group

Dr. Parag Vaishampayan (NASA JPL and BMSIS) 

Dr. Preeti Nema (BMSIS)

Dr. Rakesh Mogul (Cal Poly Pomona)

Dr. Kathryn Bywater (NASA Ames)

Extreme environments like hot springs, saline lakes, cold deserts and glaciers can be found on various planets and moons in our Solar system. These environments on Earth harbour rich and diverse microbial communities. Team shall utilize ATP, Quantitative PCR assays and DNA-based molecular techniques like next generation sequencing to study microbiota in extreme environments.

Relevant Sites: Hot springs, high altitude lakes, passes

1b – Geochemistry and Microbiology Group

Dr. Sudha Rajamani (IISER)

Dr. Jennifer Blank (NASA Ames and BMSIS)

Dr. Sanjoy Som (NASA Ames and BMSIS)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shown abundant deposits of Motmorillonite an Al rich clay mineral in the Endeavor crater on Mars. Such clay minerals have the potential to catalyse relevant biochemical reactions that eventually lead to polymerization of simple compounds into RNA molecules on prebiotic earth- the building blocks. Understanding the building blocks of life on Earth are key to framing a hypothesis when searching for life elsewhere. Dr. Rajamani’s team shall analyse various clay and mineral samples for their catalytic capabilities and also collect biologically relevant samples to characterize the lipid composition of extremophiles. Dr. Som shall investigate chemical constituents of hot spring waters (anions, cations, DIC, pH, Temperature, sulfates, dissolved gases) to gather biological data from geochemical measurements from rock-water interaction zones, such as the hot springs. The basis of this work is that doing geochemical investigations on Mars via robotic exploration systems is relatively easier than running biological experiments.

Relevant Sites: Hot springs,  high altitude passes, permafrost regions.

1c – Lipid Biomarker Detection Group

Dr. Rosalba Bonaccorsi (NASA Ames and SETI)

Dr. Bonaccorsi shall use LAL lip A biomarker instrument for detection and quantification of biomarkers. This instrument has a life detection chip and shall conduct life detection assays such as those for NASA’s proposed Icebreaker Missions SOLID (Signs Of LIfe Detector) instrument. The work shall involve first order distribution of negative like biomass in extreme environments.

Relevant Sites: Cold, high desert soils with iron and clay rich materials, glaciers, hot springs, high altitude passes, permafrost regions, saline and palaeolakes

2 – Field Geology & Sedimentology Group

Dr. Binita Phartiyal (BSIP)

Dr. Jonathan Clarke (MSA, ACA)

Dr. Phartiyal’s group has extensive experience in Ladakh region over the last 15 years in conducting geological and geomorphological research. Ladakh is a dynamic geological setting of the young mountain belt of Himalayas and the exposed features of the selected regions in the transects of the expedition will help us understand the palaeoclimate, tectonics and surface processes on Mars. The region is relatively new to astrogeologists and not a lot of work has been carried out in the region due to its rugged topography, high altitude (3000m-6000m) and geopolitical restrictions to researchers. The group shall plan to  conduct textural, elemental and magnetic analysis of collected soil samples to produce disolved gas ratios (C, H, N), clay and organic matter weight percentage. Also lake sediments shall be analysed for biotic elementsand radiocarbon dating of finer sediments.

3 – Palaeobotany Group

Dr. Mukund Sharma (BSIP)

Dr. Martin Van Kranendonk (UNSW and ACA)

This group shall study the microbial carbon metabolism at extreme temperatures (in hot springs and permafrosts) to generate key data to update the model for elucidating carbon biogeochemical cycling of Earth during the advent of life. In addition, the study will also help find the clues on biogenicity of methane gas in permafrost and its implication in search of life on Mars.

4 – Robotics Group

Dr. Steve Hobbs (MSA)

Mr. David Willson (NASA Ames)

Mr. Siddharth Pandey (UNSW Canberra, MSA and BMSIS)

The group is involved in building A4 rover- a 2 kg non rover for Mars exploration. The  A4 rover is intended to test and characterize mobility and collection of science data for nano-rover class vehicle in three Mars analogue environments in Australia, US and India. The data shall be used to refine mobility and locomotion designs to contribute to the design of a space qualified rover.  The rover is being designed to be carried as a secondary payload to a larger primary mission to Mars. The prototype shall be used to conduct a set of technology demonstrative based tests and astrogeological data gathering in order to eventually develop a space qualified vehicle.

5- Atmospheric Science Group

Álvaro Tomás Soria-Salinas, Lulea University of Technology, Sweden

Johanna Bergström Roos, Lulea University of Technology, Sweden

Maria Teresa Mendoza de Cal, Lulea University of Technology, Sweden

This group performs field site testing of HABIT (HabitAbility: Brine, Irradiance and Temperature) instrument for Mars surface exploration. This instrument is being developed for flight onboard the European Mars ExoMars 2018 mission. Specific goals for HABIT onboard Spaceward bound India campaign shall be: Specific goals of HABIT at the Spaceward Bound India Campaign:

  • To perform the field-site operation of a HABIT prototype in a dry, cold environment with plausible frost formation, and high UV doses.
  • To compare the habitability characterization performed by HABIT (in terms of biological doses, water availability and temperature ranges for metabolic and replication activity) with the results of other scientists in the campaign studying organic/lipid detection, the microbial diversity group and the geological/mineral formation.
  • To provide environmental information at an extreme environment that can be used as Mars analogue on Earth and compare with those obtained in Mars by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on boardthe Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover.
  • To demonstrate liquid water formation by exposure of salts to ambient humidity exposed to daily water cycle of a planet.
  • To demonstrate an In-Situ Resource Utilization technology for arid regions.