2010 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 2.2 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Project Reports

  • 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
  • NAI Focus Group: Icy Satellites Environments Focus Group (ISEFoG)

    This focus group provides a forum for cross-team multidisciplinary discussions related to icy outer solar system satellite processes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • AIRFrame Technical Infrastructure and Visualization Software Evaluation

    The Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame) analyzes published and unpublished documents to identify and visualize implicit relationships between astrobiology’s diverse constituent fields. The main goal of the AIRFrame project is to allow researchers and the public to discover and navigate across related information from different disciplines.

    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 Life

    Detectability of Life investigates the detectability of chemical and biological signatures on the surface of icy worlds, with a focus on spectroscopic techniques, and on spectral bands that are not in some way connected to photosynthesis.Detectability of life investigation has three major objectives: Detection of Life in the Laboratory, Detection of Life in the Field, and Detection of Life from Orbit.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • AbGradCon 2010

    The Astrobiology Graduate Student conference is a conference organized by astrobiology graduate students for astrobiology grad students. It provides a comfortable peer forum in which to communicate and discuss research progress and ideas.

    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 is aimed to improve our understanding of the connection between chemistry in space and the origin of life on Earth, and its possibility on 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. The work focuses upon molecular species that are interesting from a biogenic perspective and also upon 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
  • Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings

    The team will investigate the abundance of sulfur gases and elucidate how these gases can be expected to evolve with time on young terrestrial planets. They will continue studies of planet formation in the presence of migration and model radial transport of volatiles in young planetary systems, and will be involved with searches for M star planetary companions and planets around K-giant stars.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 4.3 6.2 7.1
  • Astronomical Observations of Planetary Atmospheres and Exoplanets

    This task encompasses remote-sensing observations of Solar System and extrasolar planets made by the VPL team. These observations, while providing scientific exploration in its own right, also allow us to test our planetary models and help advance techniques to retrieve information from the astronomical data that we obtain. This can include improving our understanding of the accuracy of inputs into our models, such as spectral databases. This year we made and/or analyzed observations of Venus and Titan taken by ground-based and spaceborne observatories, and improved models for extrasolar hot Jupiters.

  • Task 1.1.2 Models of the Internal Dynamics: Formation of Liquids in the Subsurface and Relationships With Cryovolcanism

    The rate of the heat flow through the Titan ice crust sets a limit on how long water can exist in liquid form on the surface of Titan

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Habitability of Icy Worlds

    Habitability of Icy Worlds investigates the habitability of liquid water environments in icy worlds, with a focus on what processes may give rise to life, what processes may sustain life, and what processes may deliver that life to the surface. Habitability of Icy Worlds investigation has three major objectives. Objective 1, Seafloor Processes, explores conditions that might be conducive to originating and supporting life in icy world interiors. Objective 2, Ocean Processes, investigates the formation of prebiotic cell membranes under simulated deep-ocean conditions, and Objective 3, Ice Shell Processes, investigates astrobiological aspects of ice shell evolution.

    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
  • Advancing Techniques for in Situ Analysis of Complex Organics

    Our research in laser mass spectrometry is part of the overall program of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology to investigate the origin and evolution of organics in planetary systems. Laser mass spectrometry is a technique that is used to determine the chemical composition of sample materials such as rocks, dust, ice, meteorites in the lab. It also may be miniaturized so it could fit on a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, a comet, or even Mars. On such a mission it could be used to discover any organic compounds preserved there, which in turn would give us insight into how Earth got its starting inventory of organic compounds that were necessary for life. The technique uses a high-intensity laser to “zap” atoms and molecules directly off the surface of the sample. The mass spectrometer instantly captures these particles and provides data that allow us to determine their molecular weights, and therefore their chemical composition. Our recent work has been to understand the different kinds of spectra one obtains when analyzing complex samples that are analogs of Mars and other planetary bodies, such as phyllosilicate-bearing rocks that have been identified on Mars and may indicate past conditions where life could have developed in the presence of water. We also have been improving the instrument to better detect certain kinds of organic compounds in such complex rocks, such as to selectively ionize certain hydrocarbons and simplify data analysis, and to create chemical maps of the sample surface.

  • 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 7.1
  • Path to Flight

    Our technology investigation, a Path to Flight for astrobiology, utilizes instrumentation built with non-NAI funding to carry out three science investigations namely habitability, survivability and detectability of life. The search for life requires instruments and techniques that can detect biosignatures from orbit and in-situ under harsh conditions. Advancing this capacity is the focus of our Technology Investigation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 7.1 7.2
  • Task 1.2 Interaction of Methane/ethane With Water Ice

    The extent to which hydrocarbon liquids interact with the bedrock water ice sets the stage for reactions leading to the formation of prebiotic oxygen-containing organic compounds on the Titan surface.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Survivability of Icy Worlds

    As part of our Survivability of icy Worlds investigation, we examine the similarities and differences between the abiotic chemistry of planetary ices irradiated with ultraviolet photons (UV), electrons, and ions, and the chemistry of biomolecules exposed to similar conditions. Can the chemical products resulting from these two scenarios be distinguished? Can viable microbes persist after exposure to such conditions? These are motivating questions for our investigation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.2 5.1 5.3 7.1 7.2
  • Task 2.1.1 Master Atmospheric Chemistry Simulation

    The master atmospheric chemistry model will contribute to the understanding of the extent to which organic chemistry in atmospheric processes produces complex compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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. Our efforts are focused 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 3.2 3.4 4.1 5.2 5.3 7.1 7.2
  • Bioastronomy 2007 Meeting Proceedings

    This is the published volume of material from an astrobiology meeting hosted by our lead team in 2007 in San Juan Puerto Riceo. The book includes 60 papers covering the breadth of astrobiology, and developed a new on-line astrobiology glossary.

    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 Atmospheric State and Dynamics

    The physical conditions in the Titan atmosphere set the context for the formation of organic compounds in the atmosphere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Current Status and Future Bioastronomy

    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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1
  • Comparative Icy Bodies Studies Data Access Framework

    We are developing a new database architecture and software to efficiently
    access and archive terabyte-sized sets of small body (comet and asteroid) data
    for long term studies relevant to thermal modeling, secular changes in activity,
    composition and evolution. Ultimately this will will be instrumental when connected
    with other large scale small body projects in the solar system (comet taxonomies,
    dynamical studies) to understand the formation and evolution of the solar system.

  • Computational Astrobiology Summer School

    The Computational Astrobiology Summer School (CASS) is an excellent opportunity for graduate students in computer science and related areas to learn about astrobiology, and to carry out substantial projects related to the field.

    The two-week on-site part of the program is an intensive introduction to the field of astrobiology. NASA Astrobiology Institute scientists present their work, and the group discusses ways in which computational tools (e.g. models, simulations, data processing applications, sensor networks, etc.) could improve astrobiology research. Also during this time, participants define their projects, with the help of the participating NAI researchers. On returning to their home institutions, participants work on their projects, under the supervision of a mentor, with the goal of presenting their completed projects at an astrobiology-related conference the following year.

    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
  • PHL 278: A Gateway Course for a Minor in Astrobiology

    We have recently developed obtained Montana Board of Regents for an undergraduate minor in Astrobiology at Montana State University. The Minor includes courses in Earth Sciences, Physics, Astronomy, Microbiology, Ecology, Chemistry, and Philosophy. Two new courses have been developed as part of the minor, one of which is a gateway or introductory course examines the defining characteristics of life on earth as well as the challenges of a science that studies life and its origin. The other course which will be offered fall 2011 is the capstone course for the minor which will delved into the science of Astrobiology in more detail and targeted for Juniors and Seniors that have fulfilled the majority of the requisite course requirements for the curriculum.

    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 Atmospheric Observations

    The observed organic haze in the Titan atmosphere is a result of abiotic atmospheric synthesis chemical processes.

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

    Laboratory experiments of aerosol formation in the Titan atmosphere provide input to model simulations of atmospheric processes that can lead to the formation of large organic compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task Ultraviolet/infrared Spectroscopy of Ice Films

    These experiments explore to what extent long wavelength photons, the main solar radiation penetrating deep into the Titan atmosphere, can initiate chemical reactions in Titan atmospheric ices.

    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

    Two new models have been developed in order to calculate 1) phase transitions during concentrating/diluting and cooling/heating in salt-brine-ice systems (from -60°C to 250°C) and 2) the chemical composition of hydrothermal systems. The case of water-granite interaction vs. time has been simulated to test a model of aqueous alteration that combines thermodynamics and kinetics.

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

    Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is one of the few places in our solar system hypothesized
    to be habitable. Beneath a frozen, icy surface lies a liquid water ocean that could contain the chemical constituents required by life. Future missions to Europa will study its surface in detail in an effort to extrapolate the conditions below. So it is important to understand how mass can be transported from the deep ocean, through the ice, and to the surface of the moon. To understand this process, we are performing numerical fluid-dynamical calculations of 2-phase, thermochemical convection to investigate how chemistry from the deep ocean is transported to Europa’s surface. Furthermore, we are investigating how this material transport is expected to deform Europa’s surface, such that future missions will be able to infer deep, convective processes of the moon’s interior from surface observations.

  • Task Aerosol Photoprocessing and Analysis

    A laboratory device is being constructed to simulate the condensation of aerosols in Titan’s atmosphere for exploring the possible effects of exposure of these aerosols to solar radiation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 3.1.1 Reactions of Organics With Ices and Mineral Grains

    Chemistry catalyzed by mineral grains on the Titan surface, for example a result of meteoritic infall, might lead to the formation of prebiotic compounds resulting from the insertion of oxygen into organic compounds of atmospheric origin.

    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 completed several reviews that summarize current knowledge about the geological and chemical evolution of Europa’s icy shell and its putative ocean.

  • Task 3.1.2 Heterogeneous Chemistry

    There are a variety of heterogenous surface chemical processes possible in the Titan environment that can be simulated in laboratory experiments to determine how effective each may be in leading to the synthesis of prebiotic chemistry.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 3.3.1 Solubility of Organics in Methane

    The first step in understanding what chemistry might occur in the Titan lakes requires understanding the degree to which organics can actually dissolve in liquid hydrocarbons.

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

    A better understanding of the physical and chemical properties of putative aquatic systems on icy satellites is needed to assess their potential for life. We developed new models to assess the origins of carbon and nitrogen species on Titan, the composition and salinity of an ocean on Enceladus, the chemical energy available for metabolism on Enceladus, and the formation of crystalline ice on the surfaces of icy moon.

  • Task 3.3.2 Solubility in Lakes

    The solubility of organics in hydrocarbon lakes is a key limiting factor to the extent of chemistry that can occur in Titan lakes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 3.4 Tholin Chemical Analysis

    New techniques need to be developed to characterize the chemical composition of tholins at the molecular structural level.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Icy Blue Trans-Neptunian Objects

    Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) contain some of the most pristine material in the solar system and therefore offer a unique opportunity to study chemical and physical properties of the early solar system. This project undertakes to search for rotational color variation on TNOS to look for chemical heterogeneity and infer the presence of exposed ice.

  • X-Ray Emission From Intermediate Mass Young Stars, an Erupting Young Star and Diffuse Nebula in the Carina 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 approached this problem from three directions: X-ray characteristics of young intermediate-mass stars, X-ray emission mechanism of a young star that experienced an episodic outburst, and spectral characteristics of the diffuse X-ray emission from the Carina massive star-forming region. In particular, no X-ray detection of two young intermediate-mass stars with high inclinations (PDS 144N, 144S) is consistent with a relation of X-ray absorption against the stellar inclination angle among our earlier samples. The circumstellar gas envelope around the Herbig Ae/Be stars would be thinner in higher latitudes.

  • Keck Astrochemistry Laboratory

    A new Keck Astrochemistry laboratory is being set up in which low temperature, high vacuum ice irradiation experiments can take place to simulate molecule formation in space. This will be used to explore the formation of molecules of astrobiological relevance and understand the changes that occur in the space environment. The lab will be unique because it is the only one with multiple sources of radiation over the whole spectrum and will have multiple analytical tools to measure the products so that the data can be compared to astronomical observations.

  • The Commonality of Life in the Universe

    This research considers under what conditions and where in the Universe Titan might be habitable.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • PanSTARRS MBC Stamp Server and Searching for Main Belt Comets

    We have been developing the architecture to search for activity in moving objects
    discovered with the new Pan-STARRS1 all sky survey, and in particular to look
    for volatile-driven activity in the new class of objects, called Main Belt Comets.
    The survey facility is now operational and we are starting to do the first big processing
    of the datasets.

  • Quantification of the Disciplinary Roots of Astrobiology

    While astrobiology is clearly an interdisciplinary science, this project seeks to address the question of how interdisciplinary it is. We are reviewing published works across a broad range of scholarly databases, comparing disciplinary indicators such as subject terms, journal titles and author affiliations, and creating a computational model to identify and compare the makeup of astrobiological research literature in terms of the proportion of work that come from constituent fields.

    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
  • Solar System Icy Body Thermal Modeling and Evolutionary Pathways

    Thermal evolution models have been developed and applied to various classes of small, icy
    solar system bodies in order to understand the longevity and composition of volatiles materials
    they contain, and to explore the evolution of these bodies. The models use a quasi-3D
    thermal evolution code, which is combined with astronomical observations, and dust-
    dynamical modeling. We have completed a parameter study of ice in the new class of objects
    called the main belt comets, and have found that unexpectedly, water ice can survive over
    the age of the solar system under certain conditions. This provides exciting prospects for
    potentially exploring a previously unexplored reservoir of early solar system volatiles. We are
    extending these models to comets which spend less time in the inner solar system and have
    found that for comet Kopff, there is a volatile other than water driving some of the activity. This
    modeling is being extended to Centaur objects which are evolving dynamically into the inner solar system from the Kuiper belt region.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1
  • Stardust NExT and EPOXI Mission Observing Coordination

    We have been supporting small body (comet) space missions both with ground based observations and by coordinating a world-wide observing effort.