Life at NASA with Gareth Shannon – 22/04/13

22nd April 2013

The Science Show is back on air for the new Summer Term and whilst we cannot promise sunshine, we can promise you lots and lots of science! To find out our full guest lineup, head on over to our Facebook Page or follow us on the Twitter.

Gareth Shannon - Life at NASA

To kick us off, we have postgraduate student Gareth Shannon, an Astrobiologist from the School of Pharmacy… wow! Gareth is researching the origins of life – no easy task – and is chatting to us today about his research and time working in a NASA research group. Let’s get on with the show!

Gareth works on trying to understand the proteins that make up all life on Earth. There are an infinite amount of possible proteins that nature could make, but all life can be made from just a handful – only about 1,000!

Proteins are just chains of amino acids, which are in turn made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen atoms. With over five hundred amino acids known to science, why does nature choose only a few of the possible combinations? And what’s so special about the ones that do make it? This is essentially what Gareth is trying to find out.

A Handy Guide to Proteins

As part of his work, Gareth travelled to one of NASA’s research facilities in the US at the same time as NASA’s newest and shiniest Mars rover successfully landed on the red planet. Although it’s very unlikely we will find advanced life out in the Universe, it may be possible to find the building blocks of life and those simple proteins that Gareth studies may be the things we find first.

Using massive super computers, Gareth looks how proteins change from generation to generation. The more adaptable and evolvable the protein, the more change it will survive and be useful for other things. This is another case of jack of all trades, master of none – not the usual notion of evolution we are all used to!

At NASA Gareth got to see facilities that were used in the Apollo Space Programme that took the first humans to the Moon and back.

One of those was the ‘Scorcher’ which tests heat shield materials that protect spacecraft when they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. Here’s a video showing these materials in testing!

Jabulani BallHe also took a look at one of the biggest wind tunnels in the world! Fun Science Show Fact: these wind tunnels were used to look at claims surrounding the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer ball. The now infamous Adidas Jabulani ball was criticised for being unpredictable and tests proved that above a certain speed, the ball became chaotic in its trajectory – something goalkeepers complained about at the time!