2009 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

EPO Activity: Undergraduate Research

Project Progress

To date a total of ten undergraduates have worked on Astrobiology-related research under the mentorship of NAI faculty during the reporting period. These are listed below in order of the projects they were associated with (see also separate sections).

Project 1: Interstellar Origins of Preplanetary Matter.
Jennifer Nielsen (RPI physics major) worked with Doug Whittet and Amanda Cook in Spring 2009 on analysis of spectroscopic data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Hannah Marlowe (Agnes Scott College) visited RPI in Summer 2009 as an NSF-supported REU student to work with Whittet and Cook on analysis of data from NASA’s ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) for targets in our Spitzer program. The merged Spitzer and IRTF data provide coverage of absorption features in different constituents of interstellar and circumstellar ices. Results enabled us to compare the chemical and thermal evolution of ices in the environments of young stellar objects of different luminosity and mass.

Project 2: Processing of Precometary Ices in the Early Solar System.
Max Katz and Raymond Menzel (both RPI physics majors) worked with Wayne Roberge and Glenn Ciolek in Summer 2009. Katz received NAI support to model shock-driven MHD waves in dusty multifluid plasma, a topic of fundamental relevance to our simulations of multifluid MHD shock waves. He is continuing to work on this project during the 2009/10 academic year. Menzel was supported by a Rensselaer Darrin Fellowship in summer 2009 to work on magnetic heating of primitive Solar System bodies. This is a high-risk, high-reward initiative on a new mechanism for heating asteroids and other primitive bodies. Menzel has declared his intention to become a grad student in Roberge’s group when he finishes his BS in May, 2010.

Project 4: Impact History in the Earth-Moon System.
Three University at Albany undergraduates (Kateri Gecewicz, Gavin Lemley and Robert Raffa) worked with John Delano in Summer 2009. The purpose was to give them a solid grounding in the fundamentals of the field in order to prime them to carry out productive research during the 2009/10 academic year. Students were required to make presentations and/or lead discussions on a relevant article each week.

Project 6: The Environment of the Early Earth.
Egidio Tentori (RPI engineering major) received NAI support to work with Bruce Watson in Summer 2009 on nitrogen uptake in quartz. His work was part of our effort to learn whether common rock-forming minerals such as quartz might incorporate, and retain, trace quantities of atmospheric gases in its crystal structure. The importance to astrobiology is that ancient quartz crystals might contain information on the composition of Earth’s atmosphere during the early Archean. Tentori prepared quartz samples and he started a number of long-term experiments that are still in progress.

Project 7: Prebiotic Chemical Catalysis on Early Earth and Mars.
Alex Meola (RPI chemistry major) received NAI support to work with Jim Ferris and Linda McGown in Summer 2009 on prebiotic synthesis of RNA oligonucleotides from activiated monomers on montmorillonite clays, and characterization of the products using MALDI-mass spectrometry. Joseph Thompson (RPI chemistry major) carried out research for credit on this project to fulfill the research experience requirement for his degree.