Ken Williford serves as the Deputy Project Scientist for the NASA Mars 2020 mission, and is the director of the JPL Astrobiogeochemistry Laboratory (abcLab). Research in the abcLab is broadly concerned with tracing the flow of biologically important elements (e.g. C, H, O, N, S) through Earth systems. To do this, we use the tools of "biogeochemistry" - uncovering the chemical traces of life (bio) preserved in Earth materials (geo) - within the context of astrobiology (the search for life on other planets). In recent years, Williford has focused on developing analytical techniques to search for signs of life and environment in some of the oldest rocks on Earth. Fossils are very rare in these rocks, and those that do exist are almost always microscopic. In the abcLab at JPL, Ken studies the biogeochemistry of ancient Earth rocks in part to understand how we can apply similar techniques to the search for evidence of life on other planets - in rocks returned to Earth from the surface of Mars, for example.

The JPL abcLab features capabilities for bulk geochemistry as well as spatially resolved, in situ analytical techniques. The lab features a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer-isotope ratio mass spectrometer (GC-MS-irMS) system with EA (elemental analyzer), capable of bulk carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of organic matter, bulk sulfur isotope analysis of sulfides, and on-line structural and compound specific hydrogen or carbon isotope analysis of individual organic compounds. A vacuum extraction line and high temperature conversion elemental analyzer (TC/EA) enables bulk hydrogen and oxygen isotopic analysis of organic matter and hydrous minerals. Our light and electron microscopy facility is used for micropaleontology and petrographic analysis supporting spatially resolved, microanalytical techniques including SIMS. The abcLab is part of the JPL Center for Analysis of Returned Samples (CARS), a cooperative joint facility that enables clean sample preparation and curation, microscopic characterization, and geochemical analysis of ancient terrestrial and extraterrestrial materials.


The Global Space Exploration Conference 2021

14-18 June 2021

St. Petersburg, Russia