2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 1.2 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • AbGradCon 2009

    The Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference (AbGradCon) was held on the UW campus July 17 – 20 2009. AbGradCon supports NAI’s mission to carry out, support and catalyze collaborative, interdisciplinary research, train the next generation of astrobiology researchers, provide scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions, and explore new approaches using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research amongst widely-distributed investigators. This was done through a diverse range of activities, ranging from formal talks and poster sessions to free time for collaboration-enabling discussions, social activities, web 2.0 conference extensions, public outreach and grant writing simulations.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • AIRFrame Technical Infrastructure and Visualization Software Evaluation

    To create visualizations of interdisciplinary relationships in the field of astrobiology, this component of the AIRFrame project involves creating a data model for source documents, a database structure, and evaluating off-the-shelf visualization software for possible application to the final project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Disks and the Origins of Planetary Systems

    This task is concerned with understanding the evolution of complexity as primitive planetary bodies form in habitable zones. The planet formation process begins with fragmentation of large molecular clouds into flattened protoplanetary disks. This disk is in many ways an astrochemical “primeval soup” in which cosmically abundant elements are assembled into increasingly complex hydrocarbons and mixed in the dust and gas envelope within the disk. Gravitational attraction among the myriad small bodies leads to planet formation. If the newly formed planet is a suitable distance from its star to support liquid water at its surface, it lies within the so-called “habitable zone.” The goal of this project is to understand the formation process and identification of such life-supporting bodies.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3
  • Project 1: Looking Outward: Studies of the Physical and Chemical Evolution of Planetary Systems

    We study the origin of life through a wide variety of approaches, beginning here with theoretical investigations of protoplanetary disks, the environments in which simple organic molecules first appeared and were concentrated in planetary bodies. We also study the survival of this organic matter during subsequent evolution through observations of circumstellar disks around both young and mature stars, extrasolar planetary systems, and small bodies in our Solar System, and through detailed models of planetary system formation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1
  • Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings

    This project looks at the evolution of the composition of gases in the cold disk from which planets form; the evolution of the atmosphere after planet formation, in particular, the role of trace gases in the early greenhouse effect; and, some aspects of the the formation and later dynamical evolution of extrasolar planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.1
  • Mars in the Context of Planetary Evolution

    Explaining the persistence of volcanism on Mars is a challenging target for geodynamic models. Mars and other planets within our solar system form the basis for understanding plate tectonics and habitability on rocky planets around other stars.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2
  • Astronomical Observations of Planetary Atmospheres and Exoplanets

    This task focuses on what we can learn about planets in our Solar System and exoplanets using astronomical remote-sensing techniques. These techniques include radial velocity, secondary eclipse and, for planets in our own Solar System, direct spectroscopy. These astronomical observations both tell us more about the universe, and allow us to test retrieval and observing techniques that may one day be used on extrasolar terrestrial planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 2.2
  • Bioastronomy 2007 Meeting Proceedings

    The 9th International Bioastronomy coneference: Molecules, Microbes and Extraterrestrial Life was organized by Commission 51 (Bioastronomy) of the International Astronomical Union, and by the UH NASA Astrobiology team. The meeting was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico from 16-20 July 2007. During the reporting period the Proceedings were finalized and will have a publication date of 2009.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Detectability of Biosignatures

    This goal of this project is to study our ability to remotely detect life on planets. Primarily, this applies to extrasolar planets – those that exist outside our solar system. The way we will search for life on these planets is by attempting to detect gases produced by life. For example, we could detect the life on modern-day Earth if we detected gases the presence of molecular oxygen (O2, the gas we breathe that is produced by plants and bacteria) and methane (CH4, which is produced by bacteria). These two gases can co-exist only with production rates so high that they are unsustainable without the presence of life on the planet.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 6.2
  • Earth as an Extrasolar Planet

    Earth is the only known planet that can support life on its surface, and serves as our only example of what a habitable planet looks like. This task uses distant observations of the Earth taken from spacecraft combined with a sophisticated computer model of the Earth to understand the appearance and characteristics of a habitable planet. With our model, we can generate accurate simulations of the Earth’s brightness, color and spectrum, when viewed at different time-intervals, and from different vantage points. We are using these simulations to understand how we might detect signs of an ocean on a distant planet, and to understand the limitations of surface temperature measurements when a planet has significant cloud cover.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 7.2
  • CASS Planning

    The computational astrobiology summer school (CASS) is a two week program, followed by a semester of mentored independent work, which has the following goals:

    - To introduce computer science and engineering (CS&E) graduate students to the field of astrobiology, – To introduce astrobiologists to the tools and techniques that current methods in CS&E can provide, and – To encourage interdisciplinary projects that will result in advances in astrobiology.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Modelling Planetary Albedo

    What kind of environments could provide opportunities for life in general and for the advent of complex life specifically to emerge? If there were complex life present, what features would it produce? Could we remotely characterize such habitats and the features of complex life on extrasolar planets light-years away with current and future NASA missions?
    These are the three main questions we work on in this part of the project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 4.2 6.2 7.2
  • Limits of Habitability

    The study of planetary habitability necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. The factors that can affect the habitability of planetary environments are numerous, and the disciplines that can contribute to their investigation and interpretation include, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy to name a few.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3 6.2
  • Planetary Surface and Interior Models and SuperEarths

    In this project, we model the processes that continually reshape the interiors and the surfaces of terrestrial (rocky) planets. The models we develop and use give us insight into how these processes (e.g. weathering, volcanism, and plate tectonics) affect a planet’s habitability as the planet evolves. In addition to Earth- and Mars-like planets, we now seek to model two sorts of planets not observed in our Solar System: 1) “super-Earths” (rocky planets up to 10 times as massive as Earth) and 2) planets so close to their star that the tides actually heat the interior of the planet.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 5.2 6.1
  • Postdoctoral Fellow Report: Mark Claire

    I am interested in how biological gases affect the atmosphere of Earth (and possibly other planets.) Specifically, I use computer models to investigate how biogenic sulfur gases might build up in a planetary atmosphere, and if this would lead to observable traces in Earth’s rock record or in the atmospheres of planets around other stars. I’m also working on how anaerobic oxidizers of methane affected the rise of oxygen on Earth, and if evolutionary changes in nitrogen-using bacteria may have changed global N2 levels and planetary climate.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 7.2
  • Origin and Evolution of Organics in Planetary Systems

    The central goal of the Blake group effort in the NASA GSFC Astrobiology node (Origin and Evolution of Organics in Planetary Systems (Mike Mumma, P.I.) is to determine whether complex organics such as those seen in meteorites are detectable in the circumstellar accretion disks that encircle young stars and in the comae of comets. Our program has both observational and laboratory components. We use state-of-the-art telescopes from microwave to optical frequencies, and we have developed novel high frequency and temporal resolution instruments that seek to utilize the unique properties of the terahertz (THz) modes of complex organics. The astronomical searches for such modes will begin with Herschel PACS and HIFI observations in early 2010, and will continue with SOFIA and ALMA studies as these observatories become operational in CY2011 and CY2012. The overall suite of laboratory and observational research promises to revolution our understanding of prebiotic chemistry in both our own and other solar systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1
  • Detection of Planets Around M-Dwarfs

    In the studies of extrasolar planets, the nearest stars are of particular importance. We have started a survey of nearby M dwarfs in search of terrestrial planets.Our program has been responsible for the discovery of many planets around M dwarfs for the past several years, including the most recent one which is a Saturn-mass object. Our project is continuing and we expect more discovery of small planets in the next year.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2
  • Detection of Super-Earths Using Transit Timing Variation Method

    Jupiter-like planets may orbit their parent stars in very close distances and reduce their brightness by blocking some of their lights. A second planets with a mass several times more than the Earth in such systems can disturb the orbit of the Jupiter-like planet and causes its transit to occur at different times. By measuring the time between these transit we can determine the size and orbit of the perturbing planet.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2
  • Stellar Effects on Planetary Habitability

    Habitable environments are most likely to exist in close proximity to a star, and hence a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the effect of the star on planetary habitability is crucial in the pursuit of an inhabited world. We model how stars with different masses, temperatures and flare activity affect the habitability of planets. We also address the effect that tides between a star and a planet have on planetary habitability, including the power to turn potentially habitable planets like Earth into extremely volcanically active bodies like Io.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 4.3 5.3 6.1 7.2
  • Origin and Evolution of Organics in the Planetary Systems

    This progress report summarizes astrobiology research done during the past 12 months (July 2008 – June 2009) at Washington University in St. Louis under the direction of Professor Bruce Fegley, Jr. This research is part of the NASA Goddard Center for Astrobiology (GCA) Team.
    During the past year we (Professor Fegley and Ms. Laura Schaefer) worked on two related topics. These topics are (1) chemistry during metamorphism on chondrite parent bodies, (2) chemistry during accretion of the Earth and Earth-like planets. We published (or have in press) two refereed papers, two invited book chapters, and four abstracts. A third paper has been submitted to Icarus. A fourth paper, with French astronomers who discovered Corot 7-b is in preparation and will be submitted shortly. All ten publications are listed on the attached list.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 4.1
  • The VPL Life Modules

    The Life Modules of the VPL are concerned with the modeling of biosphere processes for coupling with the VPL’s atmospheric and planetary models. These coupled models enable simulation of the impact of biogenic gases on atmospheric composition, of biota on the surface energy balance, and of the detectability of these in planetary spectra. The Life Modules team has engaged in previous work coupling 1D models in the VPL’s suite of planetary models, and current work now focuses on biosphere models coupled to 3D general circulation models (GCMs). Current project areas are: 1) development of a model of land-based ecosystem dynamics suitable for coupling with GCMs and generalizable for alternative planetary parameters, and 2) coupling of an ocean biogeochemistry model to GCMs.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • Understanding Past Earth Environments

    This project examines the evolution of the Earth over time. This year we examined and expanded the geological record of Earth’s history, and ran models to help interpret those data. Models were also used to simulate what the early Earth would look like if viewed remotely through a telescope similar to NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder mission concept. We focused our efforts on the Earth as it existed in prior to and during the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.4 billion years ago, as this was one of the most dramatic and important events in the evolution of the Earth and its inhabitants.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • VPL Databases, Model Interfaces and the Community Tool

    The Virtual Planetary Laboratory develops modeling tools and provides a collaborative framework for scientists from many disciplines to coordinate research on the environments of extrasolar planets. As part of this framework, the VPL acts as a central repository for planetary models and the inputs required to generate those results. Developing a comprehensive storehouse of input data for computer simulations is key to successful collaboration and comparison of the models. As part of the on-going VPL Community Tools, we have are developing a comprehensive database of molecular, stellar, pigment, and mineral spectra useful in developing extrasolar planet climate models and interpreting the results of NASAs current and future planet-finding missions. The result, called the Virtual Planetary Spectral Library, will provide a common source of input data for modelers and a single source of comparison data for observers.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2
  • Kavli Symposium (Fall 2008)

    The Kavli Frontiers of Science symposia are jointly sponsored by the Kavli Foundation and the US National Academy of Sciences to bring together top young scientists in an interdisciplinary conference environment that encourages in-depth discussions related to exciting advances in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, computer sciences, neurosciences and physics. As a Kavli fellow, and participant in these seminars, the UHNAI PI has organized a special astrobiology session at the fall 2008 Kavli symposium on the topic of Extrasolar planets, drawing participants from within the NAI. The purpose is to highlight the cutting edge science that is being accomplished in astrobiology through the NAI.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 6.2 7.2
  • Quantification of the Disciplinary Roots of Astrobiology

    The questions of astrobiology span many scientific fields. This project analyzes databases of scientific literature to determine and quantify the diverse disciplinary roots of astrobiology. This is one component of a wider study to build a map of relationships between the constituent fields of astrobiology, so relevant knowledge in diverse fields can be most efficiently inform the study of life in the universe.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • VYSOS Construction

    The VYSOS project aims at surveying all the major star forming regions
    all across the entire northern and southern sky for variable young
    stars. Two small survey telescopes have been purchased and provide
    large area shallow observations, and two larger telescopes allow
    deeper more detailed observations. All observations are done
    robotically.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2