2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 4.3 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks

    The Earth’s Archean and Proterozoic eons offer the best opportunity for investigating a microbial world, such as might be found elsewhere in the cosmos. The ancient record on Earth provides an opportunity to see what geochemical signatures are produced by microbial life and how these signatures are preserved for geological time. Researchers have recognized a variety of mineralogical and geochemical characteristics in ancient rocks (sedimentary and igneous rocks; paleosols) that may be used as indicators of: (i) specific types of organisms that lived in the oceans, lakes and on land; and (ii) their environmental conditions (e.g., climate; atmospheric and oceanic chemistry). Our project addresses the following questions: Are some or all of these characteristics true or false signatures of organisms and/or indicators of specific environmental conditions? Do a “biosignature” in a specific geologic formation represent a local or global phenomenon? How are the biosignatures on Mars and other planets expected to be similar to (or different from) those in ancient terrestrial rocks?

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.2 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Biosignatures in Relevant Microbial Ecosystems

    In this project, PSARC team members explore the isotope ratios, gene sequences, minerals, organic biomarkers, and other biosignatures in modern ecosystems that function as analogs for early earth ecosystems, or for life that may be present elsewhere in the solar system and beyond. Many of these environments are “extreme” by human standards and/or have conditions that are at the limit for microbial life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 7.1 7.2
  • Project 4: Impact History in the Earth-Moon System

    The influx of interplanetary debris onto the early Earth represents a major hazard to the emergence of life. Large crater-forming bodies must have been common in the early solar system, as craters are seen on all ancient solid surfaces from Mercury to the moons of the outer planets. Impact craters are few in number on the Earth today only because geologic activity and erosion gradually erase them. The Earth’s nearest neighbor, the Moon, lacks an atmosphere and significant tectonic activity, and therefore retains a record of past impacts. The goal of our research is to reconstruct the bombardment history of the Moon, and by proxy the Earth, to establish when the flux of sterilizing impacts declined sufficiently for the Earth to became habitable.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.3
  • 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
  • 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
  • Project 6: The Environment of the Early Earth

    Our project entitled “Environment of the Early Earth” involves the development of capabilities that will allow scientists to obtain information about the conditions on early Earth (3.0 to 4.5 billion years ago) by performing chemical analyses of crystals (minerals) that have survived since that time. When they grow, minerals incorporate trace concentrations of ions and gaseous molecules from the local environment. We are conducting experiments to calibrate the uptake of these “impurities” that we hope will serve as indicators of temperature, moisture, oxidation state and atmosphere composition. To date, our focus has been mainly on zircon (ZrSiO4), but we have recently turned our attention to quartz as well.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 4.1 4.3
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Rare Subduction Zone Carbonate Mineral May Hold Clues to Early Life

    Recent work performed by Erik Melchiorre as part of a NASA Minority
    Institution Research Sabbatical indicates that the rare purple mineral
    stichtite Mg6Cr2[(OH)16|CO3] . 4H2O may provide a record of
    the carbon, hydrogen and ocygen isotope values of serpentizing fluids
    from ancient subduction zones. This could be of significant interest
    in the study of methane signatures on Mars, as well as the study of
    early life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.3 7.1 7.2