2010 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 3.1 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Project Reports

  • 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Project 1A: Stability of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons and Fullerenes in Space Environment

    EXPOSE-R is a multi-user facility attached to an external platform at the outer hull of the Service Module of the International Space Station (ISS). The external platform, called URM-D is part of the Russian Segment. EXPOSE-R accommodates 10 biological and biochemical experiments, which are mounted in three removable containers, called trays. The Organics experiment on EXPOSE-R consists of thin films of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and fullerenes that are exposed ~18-24 months to solar UV under vacuum or controlled atmosphere. The samples of the Organics experiment were analyzed before exposure to space environment with UV, visible and infrared spectroscopy and the ground control samples are measured regularly in the laboratory. EXPOSE-R experiments were activated by Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) in March 2009 and are currently in orbit. The trays will be recovered by EVA again, brought into the RS-ISS and returned to Earth by the manned SOYUZ return capsule in early spring 2011.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1
  • 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
  • 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
  • Project 1: Interstellar Origins of Preplanetary Matter

    Interstellar space is rich in the raw materials required to build planets and life, including essential chemical elements (H, C, N, O, Mg, Si, Fe, etc.) and compounds (water, organic molecules, planet-building minerals). This research project aims to characterize the composition and structure of these materials and the chemical pathways by which they form and evolve. The long-term goal is to determine the inventories of proto-planetary 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
  • 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
  • Amino Acid Alphabet Evolution

    A standard “alphabet” of just 20 amino acids builds the proteins that interact to form metabolism of all life on Earth (rather like the English of 26 letters can be linked into words that interact in sentences and paragraphs to produce meaningful writing). However, considerable research from many scientific disciplines points to the idea that many other amino acids are made by non-biological processes throughout the universe. A natural question is why did life on our planet “choose” the members of its standard alphabet?

    Our project seeks to gather and organize the diverse 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 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • 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 4.6 billion years ago. Our goal is to test the hypothesis that the building blocks of life were synthesized in space and delivered to the early Earth by comets and asteroids. We use computers to simulate shock waves that energize the gas and dust in proto-planetary disks and drive physical and chemical processes that would not otherwise occur. Our work seeks specifically to determine (i) whether asteroids and comets were heated to temperatures that favor prebiotic chemistry; and (ii) whether the requisite heating mechanisms operate in other planetary systems forming today.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 2: Model the Chemical and Dynamical Evolution of Massive Stars

    Massive stars are the primary source for the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium on the periodic table. We are simulating the evolution of these stars and their eventual deaths in supernova explosions with state of the art physics in order to generate the most accurate estimates possible of the yields of chemical elements from both individual stars and stellar populations. We are also observing the variations of elemental abundances in nearby planet host candidates in order to determine the range of variation in bioessential elements and the effects of non-sunlike compositions on the evolution of the host stars.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
  • 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
  • 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
  • Complex Chemical Networks in Astrobiology

    Many of the building blocks for prebiotic chemistry form in dark molecular clouds — dense regions of interstellar gas and dust from which stars and planetary systems are also born. Sophisticated chemical models have been developed to understand the complex network of reactions that can convert simple precursor molecules to the complex organics that are often found in meteorites and comets. We have begun to apply the tools of network theory — a branch of mathematics that studies interconnected complex systems from cellular metabolism to Facebook — to gain more insight into the structure of these interstellar chemical networks. This approach allows us to make comparisons between complex chemical networks in biology, astronomy, and planetary science, searching for unifying general principles and critical differences between living and non-living systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Project 3: Pathways for Exogenous Organic Matter to the Early Earth and Mars

    This project focuses on investigating the asteroidal contribution of organic molecules to the terrestrial planets in the early Solar System – molecules that may have contributed to the rise of life on Earth and potentially on Mars. Some types of meteorites contain significant amounts of organic compounds, including amino acids. These compounds are presumed to have formed by non-biological processes, either in the solar nebula (with subsequent incorporation into asteroids during their formation), or within the asteroids themselves by liquid water acting on the original minerals. Fragments from asteroids arrive at the Earth (and Mars) at comparably low velocities and can efficiently deliver intact organic molecules to the surfaces of these planets.

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

    The goal of this task is to determine how much supernova material can make its way into a forming solar system during its initial stages, when the gas that will form the star and the planets are collapsing from a molecular cloud. This supernova material may contain radioactive isotopes like 26Al, which is the primary mechanism by which asteroids melted and which may control delivery of water and other elements to terrestrial planets. This supernova material may also change the abundance ratios of bioessential elements.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
  • 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
  • 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
  • Delivery of Volatiles to Terrestrial Planets

    Habitable planets are too small to trap gases from the planet-forming disk. Their oceans and atmospheres must originate in the planetesimals from which the planet is built. In this task, we explore how, when, and from where Earth, Mars and habitable worlds around other stars can accumulate 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 the habitable zone requires that material from further out in the disk would be transported inward. Another challenge is that upon reaching the Earth, both large and small suffer severe heating during atmospheric entry. We also have investigated the fate of these compounds upon release into the atmosphere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1 4.3
  • 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
  • Composition of Parent Volatiles in Comets: Oxidized Carbon

    GCA Co-Investigator Dr. Michael DiSanti continued his work on measuring parent volatiles in comets using high-resolution near-infrared spectroscopy at world class observatories. The goal of this work is to build a taxonomy of comets based on ice compositions, which show considerable variation among comets measured to date. DiSanti’s research emphasizes the chemistry of volatile oxidized carbon, in particular the efficiency of converting CO to H2CO and CH3OH on the surfaces of icy interstellar grains, through H-atom addition reactions prior to their incorporation into comets. The work requires planning and conducting observations, processing of spectra, and development and application of fluorescence models for interpretation of observed line intensities. Emphasis of his modeling effort was on characterizing CH3OH in comets.

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

    The goal of this task is to determine how much supernova material can make its way into a forming solar system, after the star has formed and is surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. This supernova material may contain radioactive isotopes like 26Al, which is the primary mechanism by which asteroids melted and which may control delivery of water and other elements to terrestrial planets. This supernova material may also change the abundance ratios of bioessential elements.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
  • 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • 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. 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
  • Minerals to Enzymes: The Path to CO Dehydrogenase/Acetyl – CoA Synthase

    The relationship between structure and reactivity of iron-sulfur minerals and the active sites of iron-sulfur enzymes is too strong to be coincidental. We and others have proposed that the emergence and genesis of iron-sulfur cluster enzymes occurred by a stepwise process in which mineral motifs were first nested in simple organic polymers and then in response to selective pressure evolved specific gene encoded protein nest that confer high specific enzyme activities. We are examining this hypothesis through nesting NiFeS motifs in a variety of organic nest and examining the structural determinants of reactivity.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 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 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
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 5: Model the Variability of Elemental Ratios Within Clusters

    This involves a comprehensive chemodynamic study of the self-enrichment of star forming regions and its astrobiological implications. Our approach will start from the point of star formation and diligently model 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 over which a molecular cloud, the primary units of star-forming gas, is converted into an open cluster, the primary units of formed stars — determining the probability distribution of all elements that are important in the formation of terrestrial planets and life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
  • Molecular Paleontology of Iron-Sulfur Enzymes

    In this project we are attempting to trace back in the evolutionary record using specific genetic events as markers. We are using specific gene fusion and gene duplication events in the genetic record to place a chronological sequence to the advent of nitrogen fixation, certain modes of hydrogen metabolism, and both anoxygenic and oxygenic photosynthesis.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Task 2.1.2.1 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
  • 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 2.1.2.2 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
  • 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
  • Astrophysical Controls on the Elements of Life, Task 6: Determine Which Elemental or Isotopic Ratios Correlate With Key Elements

    Many of the elements important to life or to the development of potentially habitable solar systems are difficult or impossible to observe directly. We are working to understand where these elements are produced in stars and whether they correlate with elements that are more easily observed. This effort requires modeling of the dynamics and nuclear burning in supernova explosions to determine what elements are produced together and, equally important, how the ejected material is incorporated into the gas that forms stars and planets. We are also observing a region of star formation to detect the signature of enrichment of newly formed sunlike stars by the explosion of their nearby, more massive cousins.

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

    The “RNA World” hypothesis is the current paradigm for the origins of terrestrial life. Our research is aimed at testing a key component of this paradigm: the efficiency with which RNA molecules form and grow under realistic conditions. We are studying abiotic production and polymerization of RNA by catalysis on montmorillonite clays. The catalytic efficiency of different montmorillonites are determined and compared, with the goal of determining which properties distinguish good catalysts from poor catalysts. We are also investigating the origin of montmorillonites, to test their probable availability on the early Earth and Mars, and the nature of catalytic activity that could have led to chiral selectivity on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Formation of Terrestrial Planets

    This past year VPL has continued to explore key unknowns in our understanding of terrestrial planet formation. We have performed supercomputer simulations of the early formation of the Earth, and found that it can proceed more quickly than previously appreciated and suggests terrestrial exoplanets may be common. We also showed how the shape of belts of asteroids in the outer reaches of planetary systems, which can be directly observable, provide clues to the layout of the interior planets, which are often not observable.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1 4.3
  • 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
  • Radical SAM Enzyme Functional Diversity and Evolution

    The role of radical generating iron-sulfur enzymes in making modification to iron-sulfur motifs in biology are key to the maturation of nitrogen fixing and hydrogen oxidizing enyzme activities. These enzymes act through a mechanism analogous to what has been termed ligand assisted catalysis in discussions of tuning the reactivity of iron sulfur mineral motifs before the advent of life. This strong parallel between biological and abiotic processes provides a basis to better understand the transition from prebiotic chemistry to biochemistry or the transition from the nonliving to the living EArth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4
  • Evolution of Protoplanetary Disks

    Drs. Aki Roberge and Carol Grady are pursuing studies related to Theme 2 of the NASA GSFC Astrobiology Node, “From Molecular Cores to Planets: Our Interstellar Heritage.” Over the last year, they have begun work on two Open Time Key Projects for the Herschel Space Observatory, an ESA mission launched in May 2009. Herschel is expected to spearhead the next big advances in our knowledge of planet formation, protoplanetary disk evolution, and debris disks. One project (GASPS) will illuminate the evolution of gas abundances and chemistry in protoplanetary disks over the planet-forming phase. The other (DUNES) will sensitively probe the Sun’s nearest neighbors for signs of cold debris disks associated with extrasolar Kuiper Belts. Both projects have begun to produce exciting results, including discovery of a possible new class of ultra-cold debris disks that challenge theories of debris disk evolution and planet formation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1 3.2
  • Task 2.2.2.1 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
  • Rationalized Chemical Surface Modifications

    Using biological examples such as nitrogen fixation by nitrogenase, hydrogen evolution and uptake by hydrogenases, and reversible CO/CO2 conversion by CO dehydrogenase, we began to study the effect of heterometal (Mo, V, Ni) substitution in iron-sulfur minerals and particles. We have successfully bound molybdenum sulfide on pyrite mineral surfaces and exploring the synthetic feasibility of doping Ni into freshly precipitated FeS particles. Preliminary reactivity studies indicated higher yields in formation of ammonia from nitrogen oxides at hydrothermal conditions relative to the pure iron-sulfur systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • FTT Catalysis of Organic Materials in the Solar Nebula

    The first results from our experiments to simultaneously trap noble gases while synthesizing the macromolecular organic coating on amorphous iron silicate grains were reported at the 2010 LPSC in March and were carried out in collaboration with Drs. Charles Hohenberg and Alex Meshik at Washington University. Grain coatings were made at temperatures of 873K and 673K, yet significant quantities of Xenon and Krypton were trapped while no detectable levels of either Ar or Ne were observed above blank level. FTT synthesis in the solar nebula probably took place at much lower temperatures and the observed trapping of heavy noble gases at such high temperatures is very encouraging for the low temperature studies that we will begin this spring.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Task 2.2.2.3 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
  • Structure, Reactivity, and Biosynthesis of Cataylic Iron-Sulfur Clusters

    We are examining the biosynthesis of complex iron-sulfur cluster to determine the specific chemistry associated with modifying iron-sulfur motifs in biology for different functions. We then relate the chemistry associated with these modifying reactions to reactions that could potentially modify iron-sulfur mineral motifs in the early non-living Earth to promote analogous reactivity.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 7.1 7.2
  • 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
  • Surface Chemistry on Iron-Sulfur Minerals

    Progress has been made in defining competitive abiotic pathways for reducing nitrogen compounds to ammonia from nitrogen oxides relative to the dinitrogen. Using pyrite mineral surfaces and freshly precipitated Fe-S particles, we showed that under hydrothermal conditions nitrite (NO2-), nitrate (NO3-), as well as nitric oxide (NO) can be converted to ammonia to comparable yields than starting from dinitrogen (N2). Formation of ammonia or ammonium ion in aqueous solution is considered as an essential step toward creating amino acids that are key building blocks of life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • NIR Spectroscopic Observations of Circumstellar Disks Around Young Stars

    Using the NIRSPEC instrument on the Keck telescope in collaboration with Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA GSFC and Dr. Geoffrey Blake of CalTech, we made the first discovery of OH ro-vibrational emission in the L band (3 – 4 μm) in the planet-forming (1-10 AU) region of disks around Herbig Ae stars (Mandell et al. 2008). OH is a sensitive tracer of the UV and IR radiation field and the dissociation and recombination of H2 and H2O, and combined with a strong upper limit for H2O emission these observations provide a sensitive constraint on the formation and destruction rate of water and the vertical height of the dust absorbing layer. Line strengths are characteristic of temperatures of ~600K, and the location is constrained to beyond ~1 AU by the spectral line widths, suggesting we are observing the warm molecular layer beyond the inner dust rim.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1 7.2
  • 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
  • The ABRC Philosophy of Astrobiology and the Origin of Life Discussion Group

    At Montana State University we have developed a think tank that involves Philsophers and Scientists and different points in their careers (Professor, Graduate Students, and Undergraduate Students) for the discussion of aspects of Origin of Life Theories. The think tank team has tackled a number of interesting problems and has presented there findings at national and international meetings and published their findings in the journal “Origin of Life and Evolution or Biospheres”.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • 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
  • Research Activities in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory

    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: 2.1 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • 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
  • Super-Earth Atmospheres

    In this task we use computer models to study aspects of the atmospheres of extrasolar super-Earths, planets that orbit other stars that are 2-10 times more massive than the Earth. Significant progress was made this year on three models, one that calculates how the atmosphere of the super-Earth is affected by radiative and particles coming from its parent star, one that calculates the surface temperature and change in atmospheric temperature with altitude for superEarth atmospheres and another that can model the synthetic spectrum of a superEarth when it passes in front of its star as seen from Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 3.1
  • The Cosmic Ice Laboratory

    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, studies of amino-acid destruction were begun, projects on ethane and carbonic acid were completed, and better quantification of Titan organics became possible through our experiments. All of this work is part of the Comic Ice Laboratory’s continuing contributions toward understanding the chemistry of biologically-related molecules and chemical reactions in extraterrestrial environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Ice Chemistry Experiments

    A variety of astrobiological experiments have been conducted to look at the formation and degredation of biologically important species under space simulated conditions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1
  • Virtual Catalysis From Molecular Beam Scattering

    Molecular beam/surface scattering experiments provide a controlled environment for modeling abiotic processes at the interface of lytho- and atmosphere. Specifically, it has been proposed that exposed rock surfaces may have played a role in modifying activated atmospheric molecules in the presence of UV radiation toward the building blocks of life. We have found that extended exposure of pyrite mineral surfaces to hydrogen atoms creates a reduced iron surface. The reduced state and the modified geometric structure of the surface iron atoms were confirmed by X-ray spectroscopy. Furthermore, this modified pyrite surface shows remarkable chemical reactivity in converting the hyperthermal beam of N2 to ammonia.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • 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
  • X-Ray Characterization of Modified Fe-S Mineral Surfaces

    High energy X-ray radiations generated by tunable synchrotron lightsources were used to characterize both the location of the electrons and the atomic centers in modified Fe-S minerals and particles. We have exploited the complementary information content of three different detections techniques in both soft and hard X-ray energy range. We confirmed the formation of a reduced pyrite structure from hydrogen atom exposure experiments. The formation of a reduced pyrite surface is relevant to small molecule activation processes of abiotic molecules toward formation of more complex molecules, such as amino and nucleic acids.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1
  • 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1
  • Task 3.5 Titan Genetics

    This project addresses the question of how complex molecules might be formed in liquid hydrocarbons, rather than liquid water.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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
  • Modelling Grain Surface Chemistry in Dense Clouds – Deuteration

    Understanding and tracing isotopic abundance patterns provides a key marker for
    tracing the history and evolution of planetary systems. In particular deuterium chemistry
    is of interest for tracing the origin of water in habitable worlds. The deuterium to hydrogen ratio is set in the big bang, but the relative abundance of deuterium is enhanced in interstellar space in regions of cold molecular clouds. We have been trying to understand the observations of deuterated water in space through a series of chemical models. D/H enhancement in the precursor solar system material gives us starting conditions for the early solar system composition.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1
  • Nanoparticle Levitator

    Reactions on the surfaces of micron and nano-sized particles are important in many areas of science including astrochemistry. Thus far, most of our understanding of such surface chemistry has been obtained from standard surface-science techniques. We are assembling and testing an
    acoustic levitation device to levitate and trap microparticles. The work is relevant to the formation of astrobiologically important molecules on silicate particles in the interstellar medium.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1
  • 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