2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 3.1 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • 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
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 1: High-Precision Isotopic Studies of Meteorites

    The evolution of habitable planets may be affected by the injection of short-lived radionuclides, produced by supernova explosions, early in solar system history. In this task we are finding evidence of such injection in some of the earliest Solar System materials (calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions) and constraining the timing of early Solar System events.

  • 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
  • Project 1: Interstellar Origins of Preplanetary Matter

    Astronomers have found interstellar space to be rich in the raw materials required for planets and life, including the essential chemical elements (C, N, O, Mg, Si, Fe, etc.) and compounds (water, organic molecules, and planet-building minerals). Our research is aimed at characterizing the composition and structure of these materials and the chemical pathways by which they form and evolve. The ultimate goal is to determine the inventories of protoplanetary disks around young sun-like stars, leading to a clear understanding of the processes that led to our own origins and insight into the probability of life-supporting environments emerging around other stars.

  • Biomimetic Cluster Synthesis: Bridging the Structure and Reactivity of Biotic and Abiotic Iron-Sulfur Motifs

    Synthetic approaches are being utilized to bridge the gap between Fe-S minerals and highly evolved biological Fe-S metalloenzymes. These studies are focusing on organic template (protein) mediated cluster assembly (biomineralization), probing properties of synthetic clusters, both as homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysts, investigating the impact of size scale on the properties of synthetic Fe-S clusters, and computational modeling of the structure and catalytic properties of synthetic Fe-S nanoparticles in the 5-50 nm range.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • NAI ORAU Post Doc Report: CIW-NAI
    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • 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
  • Computational Chemical Modeling the Link Between Structure and Reactivity of Iron-Sulfur Motifs

    Traditionally, the iron-sulfur mineral catalysis, iron-sulfur enzyme catalysis, and biomimetic thrust areas of ABRC have their own unique ways to probe the structure/function relationships at the surface defect sites, at the enzymatic active sites, or at the interface of biomacromolecular and iron-sulfur particle layers, respectively. Computation chemistry can provide a cohesive link among these thrust areas through bridging the enzymatic/mineral catalysis and molecular structure/chemical reactivity via fundamental physico-chemical properties at the molecule level.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 7.1 7.2
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 2: Model the Chemical and Dynamical Evolution of Massive Stars

    In order to understand the distribution of elements both on the scale of the Galaxy and individual solar systems we must understand the production of elements in stars and the dispersal of newly synthesized elements in supernova explosions. We are especially interested in the production and distribution of the radioactive isotope 26Al because the amount of this element present in the early Solar System may have affected the heating of planetesimals and hence their ability to retain water and deliver it to early planets. This task uses computational models of stellar evolution and supernovae with the most accurate treatments of physics available to predict the production elements by individual stars and by populations of stars over time.

  • 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 2: Processing of Precometary Ices in the Early Solar System

    The discovery of numerous planetary systems still in the process of formation gives us a unique opportunity to glimpse how our own solar system may have formed 5 billion years ago. We use computers to simulate events called shock waves which are common in young planetary systems. These shock waves “light up” the gas and dust in young planetary systems, making it possible to observe molecules that would not be visible otherwise. Our goal is to determine whether some of the essential building blocks of life can be detected by exploiting this effect.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • Amino Acid Alphabet Evolution

    All life on earth uses a standard “alphabet” of just 20 amino acids. Members of this alphabet links together into different sequences to form proteins that then interact to produce living metabolism (rather like the English of 26 letters can be linked into words that interact in sentences and paragraphs to produce meaningful writing). However, a wealth of scientific research from diverse disciplines points to the idea that many other amino acids are made by non-biological processes throughout the universe: put simply, we have no idea why life has “chosen” the members of its standard alphabet. Our project seeks to gather and organize the disparate information that describes these non-biological amino acids, to understand their properties and potential for making proteins and thus to understand better whether the biology that we know is a clever, predictable solution to making biology – or just one of countless possible solutions that may exist elsewhere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2 3.4 4.1 4.3 5.1 5.3 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Project 3: Pathways for Exogenous Organic Matter to the Early Earth and Mars

    Comets are rich in ices and organic molecules and were almost certainly important sources of biogenic elements to early Earth and Mars. However, because of their relatively high encounter speeds (averaging some 50 km/s), comets may be relatively inefficient sources of organic compounds to these planets. In contrast asteroids, although less rich in organics, may have been more important because their much lower encounter speeds (15 – 20 km/s) allow significant quantities of unaltered material to reach the surfaces of the terrestrial planets. A major question we propose to investigate is the relative contributions of the thermally-altered asteroidal organics versus relatively pristine cometary organics to early Earth and Mars.

  • Delivery of Volatiles to Terrestrial Planets

    Terrestrial planets are too small to trap gas from the circumstellar disk in which they formed and so must be built from solid materials (rock and ices). In this task, we explore how and when Earth, Mars and other potentially-habitable worlds accumulated water and organic carbon. The main challenge is that water and organic carbon are relatively volatile elements (compared to rock and metal). Therefore, during the period of time in which solids condensed at the current position of Earth, water and carbon would have been mainly in the gas phase. Getting these materials to earth required that inward transportation of material from further out in the disk.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1 4.3
  • Analytical and Theoretical Studies on Origin of Earth’s Oceans and Atmosphere

    Origin of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere is an outstanding problem in Earth science. Given the importance of the oceans and atmosphere to Earth’s habitability, it is a critical question for astrobiology as well. Did these features of our planet, so critical for life, originate by regular processes that are likely to be duplicated frequently in other stellar systems, or was there a large element of chance involved? We are approaching this problem by investigating the occurrence of water in the interstellar medium, in the early solar system, and in the deep Earth, using a variety of chemical and isotopic techniques to characterize Earth’s water and to identify the processes that brought it here.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • 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
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 3: Model the Injection of Supernova Material Into Star-Forming Molecular Clouds

    The influence of supernova-generated material on the evolution of a solar system depends on the effectiveness with which supernova ejecta can enter the molecular clouds from which solar systems are formed. In this task, we are using computational codes to model the injection of supernova-generated material.

  • Astrobiology Progress Report

    Scientists at the Cosmic Ice Laboratory with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology study the formation and stability of molecules under conditions found in outer space. During the past year, amino acids found in meteorites were investigated, including some acids not found in terrestrial biology. Investigations into the photostability of glycine under Martian conditions, and environments in the outer solar system, were begun. A project on ethane ice’s spectra and chemistry was initiated. All of this work is part of the Comic Ice Laboratory’s continuing contributions to understanding the chemistry of biologically-related molecules and chemical reactions in extraterrestrial environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 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
  • Molecular Beam Studies of Nitrogen Reactions on Iron-Sulfur Surfaces

    It is generally accepted that surface-mediated reactions occur on defect sites. The role of defects in the formation of ammonia is being systematically evaluated using molecular beam-surface scattering experiments in which a hydrogen atom plasma source (deuterium due to easier detection) is used to hydrogenate a pyrite surface. The hydrogenated surface is subsequently bombarded with a molecular beam of energetic nitrogen molecules and the conversion of nitrogen to products, such as ammonia is probed through mass spectrometry.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • Project 3: The Origin, Evolution, and Volatile Inventories of Terrestrial Planets

    The origin and Sustenance of life on Earth strongly depends on the fact that volatile elements H-C-O-N where retained in sufficient abundance to sustain an ocean-atmosphere. The research in this project involves studies of how terrestrial planets form, why differences exist among the terrestrial planets, how volatiles behave deep within the Earth, and how volatiles and life influence the large and small scale composition of the near surface Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 4: Model the Injection of Supernova Material Into Protoplanetary Disks

    Supernova-generated material can affect the evolution of a solar system when supernova ejecta enter protoplanetary disks. We are particularly interested in the injection of 26Al, a short-lived radioactive isotope that can affect the delivery of water to Earth-like planets when they are formed. In this task, we are conducting numerical calculations to model such injections in our Solar System, and to understand the consequences for oxygen isotope compositions that can be measured in meteorites.

  • 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
  • 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
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 5: Model the Variability of Elemental Ratios Within Clusters

    This task involves a comprehensive study of the chemical evolution of star forming regions arising from stellar processes, and its astrobiological implications. Our approach starts from the point of star formation and models the subsequent production, dissemination, and accretion of 92 chemical elements, with a special focus on bioessential elements and short-lived radionucides. Our goal is to capture the full evolution of over which molecular clouds – the primary units of star-forming gas – are converted into open clusters – the primary units of formed stars. We will then be able to determine the probability distribution of all elements that are important in the formation of terrestrial planets and life.

  • Origin of Life and Catalysis – Philosophical Considerations

    The philosophy origins of life focus group at the ABRC is interested in exploring the known physical constraints of the origins of life as well as examining the epistemic foundations on which origins of life thought are founded upon. To address these goals, the group consists of persons from divergent studies areas including chemistry and biochemistry, physics, philosophy, and history of science. Synergy resulting from a sustained group interaction of this multi-disciplinary team has resulted in the creation of a number of lines of inquiry that the group is pursuing.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.2
  • Evolution of Organic Matter in Space: UV-vis Spectroscopy Investigation on Nanosatellites

    The “Organics” experiment (PI: P. Ehrenfreund) was integrated in March 2009 on the International Space Station ISS. This experiment exposes specific PAHs and fullerene compounds for one year on-board the ISS. Laboratory measurements of the samples after retrieval will greatly enhance our understanding of the evolution of large molecules in space. A new generation of free-fliers and small satellites is also poised to enable in situ monitoring of changes to organic materials induced by space conditions. To optimize the scientific pay-off from frequent low-cost missions, the development of robust and capable in situ measurement technology is essential. We have investigated a research and technology program that includes 1) ground-based monitoring of EXPOSE-R samples in a simulated space environment, 2) development of a laboratory prototype UV-Vis spectrometer for in situ measurements of organic material on future free-fliers and lunar surface exposure facilities, and 3) detailed characterization of the prototype’s performance via in situ spectral measurements of control EXPOSE-R samples versus time in a simulated space
    environment, in direct comparison with a reference laboratory spectrometer. The research program combines the expertise and facilities of two NAI teams (Wisconsin and ARC) and addresses the key objectives of the Astrobiology Small Payloads (ASP) program, as well as Astrobiology Roadmap Goal 3 on cosmic and planetary precursors.

  • 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
  • Project 4: Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life

    The project titled “Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life” sets a out a research object focusing on exploring the natural intersection of abiological organic chemistry and the mineral world. Assuming that life emerged on Earth as a consequence of natural, geochemical, processes. We ask what did the organic landscape look like before life, how did organic-mineral surface interactions affect this landscape, and can we identify any connections between this abiotic organic Earth and the subsequent emergence of life.

  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 6: Determine Which Elemental or Isotopic Ratios Correlate With Key Elements

    In our “follow the elements” strategy we work to refine searches for planetary systems likely to host life by identifying systems with favorable elemental compositions. Because some relevant elements or isotopes (for example 26Al) are difficult or impossible to observe due to low abundances or short lifetimes, we wish to find easily observable indicators of their presence. In most cases this involves identifying elements or isotopes that are either produced primarily by the same process as the isotope of interest or produced in unique ratios to other isotopes by that process. This requires simulating the synthesis of isotopes in stars and supernovae and their ejection into space and incorporation into forming planetary systems.

  • Characterizing Formation Pathways for 1st Generation Ices

    Molecular chemistry can provide insight into the physical processes at the earliest stages of star birth, when molecular cloud cores collapse to form protostellar condensations. Dust particles in the dense clouds accrete molecules from the gas, resulting in the growth of ice mantles that eventually get transported into the protostellar environment. It is here, that the warm and dense environments of star forming regions promote a rich chemistry that creates complex prebiotic compounds and a small fraction of this material ends up as planets. Understanding the dominant chemical pathways and the composition of the first ice mantles formed in starless molecular
    clouds allows to better interpret the physical effects of star formation (i.e., temperature, radiation, etc.) on molecular cloud material.

  • Probing the Structure and Nitrogen Reduction Activity of Iron-Sulfur Minerals

    Iron-sulfur compounds are common in both biological and geological systems. The adaptation of Fe-S clusters from the abiotic world to the biological world may have been an early event in the development of life on Earth and possibly a common feature of life elsewhere in the universe. The iron-sulfur mineral thrust of the ABRC is focused on examining the structure and reactivity of FeS minerals using nitrogen fixation as a model reaction.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • Hydrodynamic Escape From Planetary Atmospheres

    We use computer models to simulate the behavior of the upper atmospheres of different planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, Earth-like exoplanets, etc.) during their early evolutionary stages. Young stars produce more flares and other stellar activity than older stars, and the young Sun emitted a greater amount of energetic photons than it does today, which heated the upper atmospheres of the planets. This atmospheric heating led to fast atmosphere escape, which probably controlled the atmospheric composition of early planets. The atmospheric composition on early Earth provides critical constraints on the origin and early evolution of life on this planet. The atmospheric composition of other planets provide important constraints on their habitability.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 3.1
  • 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
  • Project 7: Prebiotic Chemical Catalysis on Early Earth and Mars

    The “RNA World” hypothesis is the current paradigm for the origins of terrestrial life. This hypothesis proposes that the first life on Earth was based on RNA, and that RNA subsequently catalyzed life based on DNA. Our research is aimed at testing a key component of the paradigm, i.e., the efficiency with which RNA molecules form and grow under realistic conditions. We are investigating abiotic production and polymerization of RNA by catalysis on montmorillonite clays. We find that RNA chains some 50 units long can be formed in the laboratory from activated RNA monomers with montmorillonite as a catalyst, and that 12 of the 22 montmorillonites we tested are catalytic. A correlation is found between catalytic activity and charge: montmorillonites with a low negative charge are catalytic, those with a high negative charge are not.

  • 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
  • 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.

  • Structure, Function, and Biosynthesis of the Complex Iron-Sulfur Clusters at the Active Sites of Nitrogenases and Hydrogenases

    Iron-sulfur clusters are thought to be among the most ancient cofactors in living systems. The iron-sulfur enzyme thrust is focused on examining the structure, mechanism, and biosynthesis of the complex Fe-S enzymes nitrogenase and hydrogenase. Biochemical, biophysical, and structure biology approaches are being employed to provide insights into complex iron-sulfur biosynthesis to establish paradigms for complex iron-sulfur cluster biosynthesis that can be placed in the context of the evolution of iron-sulfur motifs from the abiotic to biotic systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • 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
  • Planet Formation and Dynamical Modeling

    We examine how various formation processes may impact the potential development of an habitable world, and how subsequent orbital evolution can affect habitability. We explore these phenomena through numerical simulations that allow us to determine the compositions, orbits, and sometimes the internal properties of terrestrial in the Solar System and beyond.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.3
  • 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
  • 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
  • NASA Postdoctoral Program Research Summary

    We used the Swift observatory to study the gaseous composition and evolution of two very interesting comets (8P/Tuttle and C/2007 Lulin). The spectral ranges of Swift’s grisms (175-520 nm) encompass known cometary fluorescence bands of OH (306 nm), and of many other molecular fragments (e.g., NH, CS, CN, C2, fragment CO, etc.). Repeated observations of the two comets with Swift’s UV-Optical Telescope provided a unique dataset that reveals variations in the comet’s gas production rate on a scale of hours as well as months. As part of this investigation, much time and effort was dedicated to developing new analytical routines for processing the grism data. Further observations of different comets will provide insight in the chemical connection between parent- and fragment molecules.

  • 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
  • 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
  • Qualitative Analysis of Soils Samples Using Solid Phase Microextraction (SPME) and Gas Chromatography/mass Spectrometry (GC/MS)

    The investigation of the physical and chemical properties of Mars soil analogues collected in arid deserts provide limits to exobiological models, evidence on the effects of subsurface mineral matrices, support current and planned space missions, and address planetary protection issues. We have collected samples in the Atacama desert and applied Solid Phase Micro-Extraction (SPME) to optimize the extraction of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are among the most abundant molecules found in various space environments in the solar system and beyond. SPME is a solvent-free extraction method invented and applied in a variety of sampling-detection scenarios. The aim of this study is to use SPME for fast screening and determination of PAHs in soil samples. This method minimizes sample handling and preserves chemical integrity of the sample. When compared to traditional extraction methods SPME may provide better analyte recoveries, less opportunity for rearrangement and decomposition of analytes, and faster analysis. This study and further optimization of this extraction technique provides important data for the calibration and performance of future Mars instrumentation that specializes on the detection of organic molecules.

  • Research Activities in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory

    A little over 4.5 billion years ago, our solar system was a disk of gas and dust, newly collapsed from a molecular cloud, surrounding a young and growing protostar. Today most of the gas and dust is in the spectacularly diverse planets and satellites of our solar system, and in the Sun. How did the present state of the planetary system come to be from such undistinguished beginnings? The telling of that story is an exercise in forensic science. The “crime” occurred a long time ago and the “evidence” has been tampered with, as most planets and satellites display a rich variety of geological evolution over solar system history.

    Fortunately, not all material has been heavily processed. Comets and asteroids represent largely unprocessed material remnant from the early solar system and they a represented on Earth by meteorites and interplanetary dust particles (IDPs). Furthermore, telescopic studies of the birth places of other solar systems allow researchers to simulate those environments in the laboratory so that we may characterize the organic material produced.

    We are a laboratory dedicated to the study of organic compounds derived from Stardust and future sample return missions, meteorites, lab simulations of Mars, interstellar, proto-planetary, and cometary ices and grains, and instrument development. Like forensic crime shows, the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory employs commercial analytical instruments. However, ours are configured and optimized for small organics of astrobiological interest instead of blood, clothing, etc.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 4.3 7.1
  • Deuteration on Grain Surfaces

    The gas and dust in the interstellar medium undergoes considerable processing in the passage through a cold molecular cloud to a circumstellar envelope to protoplanetary disk to, ultimately, comets and planetesimals. Over the years, deuterium fractionation has been instrumental in deciphering the chemical routes in molecular clouds. Deuterated molecules have a highly temperature-sensitive chemistry and can provide valuable information on physical conditions in the early solar nebula. At low temperatures, the abundance of certain deuterium-bearing species is enhanced by many orders of magnitude. Understanding the discrepancy between the D/H ratio in comets and Earth’s oceans requires better knowledge of grain surface chemistry involving deuterium.

  • The Formation of Graphite Whiskers in the Primitive Solar Nebula

    Graphite whiskers have been discovered associated with high temperature phases in meteorites1 such as Calcium Aluminum Inclusions and chondrules and it has been suggested that expulsion of such material from protostellar nebulae could significantly affect the optical properties of the average interstellar grain population. We have experimentally studied the potential for Fischer-Tropsch and Haber-Bosch type reactions to produce organic materials in protostellar systems from the abundant H2, CO and N2 reacting on the surfaces of available silicate grains2. When graphite grains are repeatedly exposed to H2, CO and N2 at 875K abundant graphite whiskers are observed to form on or from the surface of the graphite grains. In a dense, turbulent nebula such extended whiskers are very likely to be broken off and the fragments could be ejected either in polar jets or by photon pressure.

  • X-Ray Emission From an Erupting Young Star and Stellar Population in the Carina Massive Star Forming Region

    High-energy photons in the young stellar environment are known to be important in stimulating chemical reactions of molecules and producing pre-biotic materials. In this reporting period, we studied X-ray emission from an erupting young star, young stars in a massive star forming region and a neutron star, whose ancient activity may affect current star formation. In particular, the Chandra and Suzaku observatories detected hard variable X-ray emission from the erupting young star V1647 Ori. This result suggests that the new eruption started in 2008 is driven by the same mechanism as an earlier eruption started in 2004.

  • 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
  • Formation of Higher Carbon Oxides in CO2 Rich Solar System Ices

    The interstellar medium contains large dark cold clouds which are full of sub-micrometer interstellar grains. These icy grains are found to contain large amounts of both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, however only carbon monoxide is found to be abundant in the gas phase. It is therefore likely that the production of carbon dioxide occurs through the processing of condensed carbon monoxide with irradiation from high energy cosmic rays. It is also likely that more exotic carbon oxides can be produced in this manner, a number of which have been detected for the first time as part of our studies.

  • 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
  • Light Curve of Main Belt Comet 176P/LINEAR

    Comet 176P/Linear belongs to the new class of main belt comets (MBCs) which show both, asteroid and comet like behavior. As these solar system bodies reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, they are easier to reach for a spacecraft compared to comets in the Oort cloud or the Kuiper belt. We are proposing a NASA Discovery-Class mission to such a main belt comet. Currently only four MBSs are known and it is crucial that we learn as much as possible about their physical properties. The aim of this project is to obtain a rotational light curve from recent observations with the UH2.2m telescope on Mauna Kea. The light curve will allow us to determine the how fast the comet’s nucleus is rotating.

  • 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
  • Mineral-Catalyzed Coupling of Amino Acids to Polypeptides

    Enzymes carry out chemical functions within our body, and are produced from long chains of amino acids called polypeptides. Today, the manufacture of these long chains is made possible within our bodies by large 'machinery’ known as polymerases. However, these are vastly complex, and were almost certainly not present in the early stages of life. One question we are trying to answer here is whether or not it is possible to produce long chains of polypeptides under certain conditions which may be relevant to the origin of life, such as on the surface of a mineral.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 7.1 7.2
  • Modelling Grain Surface Chemistry in Dense Clouds

    Dust grains in interstellar molecular clouds accrete molecules from the gas,
    resulting in the growth of ice mantles that eventually get
    transported into the protostellar environment. It is here, that the
    warm and dense environments of star forming regions promote a rich
    chemistry that creates complex prebiotic compounds and a small
    fraction of this material ends up as planets. Quantifying the level of molecular complexity attainable through dust grain surface chemistry requires modeling the key
    hydrogenation and oxidation chemical pathways.

  • 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
  • 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.

  • Ultra-Violet Processing of Ices in the Rosette Molecular Cloud

    Ices and organics in the molecular clouds are subjected to a plethora of harsh conditions such as thermal, ultraviolet- (UV), and particle-irradiation that destroy, sputter or modify the material. As a result, it is likely that the molecular compounds found in the initial cloud and those observed in circumstellar disks may not, at first glance, be very similar but instead are linked via complex chemical networks. the Sun formed in a high mass star-forming cloud where at least one, and most likely many, supernova events occurred, resulting in intense UV radiation throughout the cloud complex. The Rosette molecular cloud provides the perfect laboratory analog for the early solar nebula molecular cloud. This project is a comparative study of the UV processing of the ices toward several embedded stellar clusters in the Rosette molecular cloud.