2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 2.2 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • 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
  • Astrobiology of Icy Worlds

    Icy worlds such as Titan, Europa, Enceladus, and others may harbor the greatest volume of habitable space in the Solar System. For at least five of these worlds, considerable evidence exists to support the conclusion that oceans or seas may lie beneath the icy surfaces. The total liquid water reservoir within these worlds may be some 30 to 40 times the volume of liquid water on Earth. This vast quantity of liquid water raises two questions: Can life emerge and thrive in such cold, lightless oceans beneath many kilometers of ice? And if so, do the icy shells hold clues to life in the subsurface? We will address these questions through four major investigations namely, the habitability, survivability, and detectability of life of icy worlds coupled with “Path to Flight” Technology demonstration. We will also use a wealth of existing age-appropriate educational resources to convey concepts of astrobiology, spectroscopy, and remote sensing; develop standards-based, hands-on activities to extend the application of these resources to the search for life on icy worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 5.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • 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
  • Task 1.1.1 Numerical Simulation of the Mixing of Organics and Ice During an Impact

    On the Titan surface, organics can mix and react with liquid water created during an impact. A model simulation of an impact on the Titan surface will be used to estimate how long liquid water might exist after an impact, which will suggest how much reaction-forming prebiotic compounds may have occurred.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity

    This project seeks to improve our understanding of the connection between chemistry in space and the origin of life on Earth and possibly other worlds. Our approach is to trace the formation and development of chemical complexity in space, with particular emphasis on understanding the evolution from simple to complex species focusing on those that are interesting from a biogenic perspective and also understanding their possible roles in the origin of life on habitable worlds. We do this by first measuring the spectra and chemistry of materials under simulated space conditions in the laboratory. We then use these results to interpret astronomical observations made with ground-based and orbiting telescopes. We also carry out experiments on simulated extraterrestrial materials to analyze extraterrestrial samples returned by NASA missions or that fall to Earth in meteorites.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.4 4.3 7.1 7.2
  • Task 1.1.2 Models of the Internal Dynamics: Formation of Liquids in the Subsurface and Relationships With Cryovolcanism

    Prebiotic compounds can be formed on the Titan surface when organics mix and react with liquid water in a cryovolcanic context, where subsurface water “erupts” onto the cold surface.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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
  • 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.

  • Advancing Techniques for in Situ of Complex Organics

    During this year we continued developing techniques and protocols for laser time-of-flight mass spectrometry (TOF-MS) analysis of complex organic molecules and trace elements, which would be of importance on missions to Mars, Titan, comets, and other planetary bodies, where resources for chemical sample manipulation, preparation, and processing are limited. We upgraded the solid sampling and optical configurations for our “Tower TOF” prototype and used the system to further develop peak pattern libraries for Mars and cometary analogs in comparison with other instrument techniques. We examined the effects of sample preparation on fragmentation patterns of benzene di-, tri-, and hexa-carboxylic acid standards, finding that often simpler approaches can yield more reliable results. We also worked toward a new laser pyrolysis-based experiment for analysis of neutral gas from solid samples.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1
  • Task 1.2 Interaction of Methane/ethane With Water Ice

    The degree of mixing on the Titan surface between liquid hydrocarbons and the icy water surface establishes a potential for reactions that could form prebiotic compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Project 2: Origin and Evolution of Organic Matter in the Solar System

    Through telescopic observations of remote objects, we are learning about the distribution of organic matter in the outer Solar System and how it is thermally processed, as well as about dynamic processes that .could have delivered such organic-rich material to be incorporated into terrestrial planets. Extraterrestrial samples like primitive meteorites and interplanetary dust particles contain significant amounts of carbonaceous material and were likely a source of organic matter to the early Earth. By using a wide variety of advanced techniques to study organic matter in meteorites and other extraterrestrial samples, we are trying to learn how and where it formed, and how it has been modified during 4.5 billion years of solar system evolution. We also perform laboratory experiments to simulate formation of complex organic matter and how it is modified on planetary surfaces. Finally we are studying biological contamination of meteorites once they have landed on Earth to learn how this can affect studies of the indigenous non-biological organic matter.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 7.1
  • Task 2.1.2 Atmospheric State and Dynamics

    An understanding of the structure of the Titan atmosphere provides the context for the formation of complex organic compounds in the atmosphere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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
  • Developing New Biosignatures

    The development and experimental testing of potential indicators of life is essential for providing a critical scientific basis for the exploration of life in the cosmos. In microbial cultures, potential new biosignatures can be found among isotopic ratios, elemental compositions, and chemical changes to the growth media. Additionally, life can be detected and investigated in natural systems by directing cutting-edge instrumentation towards the investigation of microbial cells, microbial fossils, and microbial geochemical products. Over the next five years, we will combine our geomicrobiological expertise and on-going field-based environmental investigations with a new generation of instruments capable of revealing diagnostic biosignatures. Our efforts will focus on creating innovative approaches for the analyses of cells and other organic material, finding ways in which metal abundances and isotope systems reflect life, and developing creative approaches for using environmental DNA to study present and past life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.4 4.1 5.2 5.3 7.1 7.2
  • Water Delivery to the Surface of Icy Satellites

    Oceans below the icy surface of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter may be habitable. Sampling this ocean directly is difficult. This ocean water may, however, erupt onto the surface of these moons and there are active and fossil features that suggest this is possible. We show, however, that cracks are unlikely to penetrate all the way through the ice shell. We also develop models for the coupled orbital and interior evolution of icy satellites.

  • Task 2.1.3 Aerosol Nucleation and Growth

    Organic macromolecular aerosols in the Titan atmosphere may contribute to the orange haze seen in the visible spectrum and can serve as the initial stage of prebiotic chemistry on Titan.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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
  • Task 2.2.1 Characterization of Aerosol Nucleation and Growth

    Aerosol nucleation in the Titan atmosphere may form the orange material seen in visible images.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Current Status & Future Bioastronomy With the Large Millimeter Telescope

    Irvine and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts have been using a unique new broadband radio receiver to measure the spectra of external galaxies in the 3mm wavelength region, and hence to study the chemistry of their interstellar gas. The so-called Redshift Search Receiver allows the simultaneous observation of essentially the entire 3mm spectrum of a galaxy, and hence to measure the molecular emissions in this band. Including all the 10 galaxies observed, we detected 20 spectral lines from 14 different atomic and molecular species. There are interesting differences in the chemistry of these objects, e.g., in the relative strength of emission lines from HCN, HNC, HCO+, CH3OH, 13CO , CS and N2H+ (a proxy for N2). The receiver is ultimately intended for use on the Large Millimeter Telescope; however, until the LMT is completed, the receiver has been tested at the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory’s 14-meter telescope, operated by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

  • Task Ultraviolet/infrared Spectroscopy of Ice Films

    Condensed phase chemistry in organic aerosols can produce large organic macromolecules.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task Aerosol Photoprocessing and Analysis

    Organic aerosols produced in the laboratory can be photoprocessed to simulate actual Titan tholin-producing chemistry.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Habitability of Water-Rich Environments, Task 1: Improve and Test Codes to Model Water-Rock Interactions

    Many potentially habitable water-rich environments are not directly observable. These include ancient fluids on Mars, the subsurface oceans on Europa and other icy bodies, and the oceans of postulated extrasolar planets. Computer models are required to simulate the chemical compositions of these environments. In this task we are improving the computer codes used to model water-rock interactions.

  • Comet Holmes

    We observed the outburst of Comet Holmes. Using image processing techniques, we inferred the existence of a large number of distinct fragments or subnuclei ejected at a velocity of 100 meters per second. We deduced that these subnuclei may consist of clusters of small particles, and were most likely expelled by a very efficient gas ejection process.

  • Habitability of Water-Rich Environments, Task 2: Model the Dynamics of Icy Mantles

    A major aim of future missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa will be to determine whether or not a subsurface ocean exists beneath the icy surface, and assess its habitability. Such investigations require that we understand how features visible at the surface are related to the ocean that may lie below. A major process governing this interaction is convection within ice. To this end, we are developing a new model of Europa ice convection.

  • Task 3.1 Reactions of Organics With Ices and Mineral Grains

    The formation of prebiotic chemical compounds on the Titan surface may be catalyzed by the presence of mineral grains.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Comet Kopff Thermal Modelling

    We examine the behavior of a typical comet, designated 22P/Kopff, as it orbits the Sun. When the comet approaches the minimum distance form the Sun, a heat wave penetrates from the surface inwards. This input of heat causes the material to change. These changes invoke an outflow of various gases and solids, which are responsible for the patterns of activity, visible as a coma and tail.

  • Task 3.3 Solubility of Organics in Methane

    Liquid methane can serve as a solvent medium in which organic chemistry may occur in sites on the Titan surface.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Habitability of Water-Rich Environments, Task 3: Evaluate the Habitability of Europa’s Subsurface Ocean

    We are assessing the habitability of Europa’s ocean by integrating geologic mapping of the Europa surface with geodynamic models of ice convection and geochemical models of ocean and ice composition.

  • The Commonality of Life in the Universe

    Is life a common outcome of physical and chemical processes in the universe? Around other stars, Titan-like environments are key astrobiology targets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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
  • Habitability of Water-Rich Environments, Task 5: Evaluate the Habitability of Small Icy Satellites and Minor Planets

    Small bodies in the outer Solar System may harbor liquid water-ammonia oceans and many of the chemical ingredients of life. In this project, we are assessing how much liquid may be present in the Kuiper Belt and the geochemical evolution of Saturn’s volatile-rich moons Enceladus and Titan.

  • Distant Comet Activity

    Observations of comets coming in to the solar system for the first time show that they are very active at distances beyond where water ice sublimation can create outgassing. Understanding the processes that drive comet activity provides us with an understanding of the comet chemistry and allows a glimpse at conditions in the early solar system. Comets impacted the early earth and delivered water, other volatiles and organic materials to the planet, including the ingredients necessary for life. Understanding the chemical and physical make up of comets is important for unraveling the story of what makes a world habitable.

  • Formation of Carbon and Nitrogen-Rich Organics in Solar System Ices

    carbon and nitrogen-rich organics are essential to life as we know it, but how readily available were they on the primordial earth? clues about the composition of primordial material thar could be present come from irradiation experiments on the precursors already identified on interstellar ices

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • Infrared Spectra and Radiation Processing of Water- and Ammonia Rich Solar System Ice

    Ammonia has been found in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. In comets and interstellar ices, ammonia is present at around 1% abundance relative to water ice. Ammonia is a potentially important chemical component in the solar system both as a repository of nitrogen in primitive objects such as the nuclei of comets and as an agent by which ice convection can be enhanced in the deep interiors of ice-rich bodies. The spectra obtained in our experiments might be useful for comparison with astronomical observations to estimate the concentration of ammonia in outer solar system ices.

  • Keck Astrochemistry Laboratory

    The overall goal of this project is to comprehend the chemical evolution of the Solar System. This will be achieved through an understanding of the formation of carbon-, hydrogen-, oxygen-, and nitrogen-bearing (CHON) molecules in ices of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) by reproducing the space environment in a specially designed experimental setup. KBOs are small planetary bodies orbiting the sun beyond the planet Neptune, which are considered as the most primitive objects in the Solar System. A study of KBOs is important because they resemble natural ‘time capsules’ at a frozen stage before life developed on Earth. Our methodology is based on a comparison of the molecules formed in the experiments with the current composition of KBOs; such approach provides an exceptional potential to reconstruct the composition of icy Solar System bodies at the time of their formation billions of years ago. The significance of this project is that our studies elucidate the origin of biologically relevant molecules and help unravel the chemical evolution of the Solar System. Since KBOs are believed to be the main reservoir of short-period comets, which are considered as ‘delivery systems’ of biologically important molecules to the early Earth, our project also brings us closer to the understanding of how life might have emerged on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • Main Belt Comet P/2008 R1 Garradd Characterization

    We identified P/2008 R1 as a main-belt comet (previously mis-classified as an ordinary Jupiter-family comet) and mounted an observational program to assess its physical properties, and a dynamical campaign to understand its orbit.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1
  • MBC Mission Development

    The distribution of water and volatiles in our solar system may be a primary determinant of solar system habitability. Main Belt Comets (MBCs), a newly discovered class of volatile-containing objects in the asteroid belt, present a sub-class of particular significance both to the water history, and to the history of other important volatiles in our solar system. As comets in near-circular orbits within the asteroid belt, these objects may harbor water condensed and frozen out from the primordial ‘snow line’ of the young solar system. Studying MBC water and volatile inventory will advance our understanding of both the origin of Earth’s ocean and of volatile inventories throughout the Solar System. The UH NAI team is developing a concept for a Discovery class mission to study the Main Belt Comets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1
  • Nordic-UHNAI Astrobiology Summer School – Iceland 2009

    In collaboration with the Nordic Astrobiology Network, we organized an astrobiology summer school held in Iceland from Jun 29-Jul 13, 2009. Participants included 19 graduate students from the US, and 24 students from 16 countries, with a focus on Nordic participants. Activities during the two week program included lectures on the topics of Water, Ice and the Origin of Life in the Universe, a student poster session, field sampling on thermophiles, and labwork and computer modeling activities.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 5.2 5.3
  • PanSTARRS MBC Stamp Server and Detection Limits

    We have been developing the architecture to search for main belt comets (MBCs) in the upcoming Pan-STARRS1 all sky survey. MBCs are an important new reservoir of water in the inner solar system, and we hope to be detecting a steady stream of them in PS1 beginning in late 2009 or early 2010.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 6.2
  • 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
  • Stardust NExT and EPOXI Mission Observing Coordination

    The StardustNExT and EPOXI missions are extended missions to comets, scheduled to arrive on Feb. 14, 2011 and Nov. 4, 2010, respectively. Members of the UH NAI team have been participating in an international observing campaign designed to characterize the nuclei of comets 9P/Tempel 1 and 103P/Hartley 2 in advance of the encounter. In particular, during this reporting period preparation for observations and analysis of the rotation rates of the comets was undertaken.

  • 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

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2