2010 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 4.3 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Project Reports

  • 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
  • Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks

    This team of geologists, geochemists, paleontologists and biologists seeks signs of early life in ancient rocks from Earth. Working mostly on that part of Earth history before the advent of skeletons and other preservable hard parts in organisms, our group focuses on geochemical traces of life and their activities. We also investigate how life has influenced, and has been influenced by changes in the surface environment, including the establishment of an oxygen-rich environment and the initiation of extreme climate states including global glaciations. For this we use a combination of observations from modern analogous environments, studies of ancient rocks, and numerical modeling.

    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

    The Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame) analyzes published and unpublished documents to identify and visualize implicit relationships between astrobiology’s diverse constituent fields.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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 the surface, it is in the so-called “habitable zone.” The formation process and identification of such life-supporting bodies is the goal of this project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3
  • 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
  • Biosignatures in Relevant Microbial Ecosystems

    In this project, PSARC team members explore the isotope ratios, gene sequences, minerals, organic molecules, and other signatures of life in modern environments that have important similarities with early earth conditions, or with 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

  • Dynamical Effects on Planetary Habitability

    VPL explored numerous features of orbits. We showed that comets are unlikely to have produced more than 1 mass extinction event in the past 500 million years. We catalogued the fractions of habitable zones of nearby stars that are capable of supporting a habitable planet. We also participated in the discovery of two planets whose orbital planes are offset by 30 degrees.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.3
  • 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
  • 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
  • Project 6: The Environment of the Early Earth

    This project 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 analyzes 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 expect to 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
  • 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
  • Project 3B: Do Iron-Rich Carbonates From Banded Iron Formations Record Ancient Seawater?

    Carbonates are ubiquitous in the geologic record over Earth’s history, and their chemical and isotopic compositions have been key to discussions on the compositions of the ancient oceans, as well as the evolution of life. Moreover, the abundance of Fe-carbonates, common in banded iron formations (BIFs), and the Archean sedimentary rock record in general, has led many workers to use such carbonates as a proxy for surface conditions and to provide insights into seawater chemistry of the ancient Earth. For carbonates to yield information about ancient ocean compositions, however, they must be demonstrated to have been a direct precipitate from ocean water and not subsequently modified. One approach to test if ancient carbonates record seawater is through studies of the isotopic compositions of elements that usually reflect seawater compositions in carbonate minerals.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.3 5.2 7.1
  • 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 looked at how the Sun’s brightness would have changed with time. We also model how stars with different masses, temperatures and flare activity affect the habitability of planets, including looking at the effect of a very big flare on a planet’s atmosphere and surface. We find that a planet with an atmosphere like Earth orbiting around a cool red star is fairly well protected from UV radiation, but particles associated with the flare can produce damaging chemistry in the planetary atmosphere that severely depletes the planet’s ozone layer.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.1 4.3 5.3 6.1 7.2
  • 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