2011 Annual Science Report

Carnegie Institution of Washington Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Executive Summary

The NASA Astrobiology Institute team led by the Carnegie Institution of Washington is dedicated to the study of the extrasolar planets, solar system formation, organic rich primitive planetary bodies, deep sequestration of CHON volatiles in terrestrial planets, prebiotic molecular synthesis through geocatalysis, and the connection between planetary evolution the emergence, and sustenance of biology – processes central to the missions of the NAI. Our program attempts to integrate the sweeping narrative of life’s history through a combination of bottom-up and top-down studies. On the one hand, we study processes related to chemical and physical evolution in plausible prebiotic environments – circumstellar disks, extrasolar planetary systems and the primitive Earth. Complementary to these bottom-up investigations of life’s origin, we will continue our field and experimental top-down efforts to document the nature of microbial life at extreme conditions, as well as the characterization of organic matter in ... Continue reading.

Field Sites
29 Institutions
6 Project Reports
252 Publications
8 Field Sites

Project Reports

  • Project 5: Geological-Biological Interactions

    This project involves multiple researchers exploring life in extreme environments, the signature of life (chemical, isotopic and mineralogical), and the adaption of life. All together the many sub-topics of this project seek to inform us about where to search for life on other worlds and how to seek evidence that life once existed on other worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • Project 4: Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life

    This project involves research designed to aid understanding the geochemical roots of life focusing in particular on the role of mineral surfaces play in catalyzing organic reactions that may have biochemical utility.

  • Project 6: Application of Laboratory Experimentation to Flight Instrument Testing

    This project links our Astrobiological research program to an international (NASA and ESA) research program centers on using Svalbard Island, Norway, as a Mars Analogue Research Site. The research is a collaboration between the Carnegie Institution of Washington and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. During the past summer a variety of instruments designed to be flown to Mars were tested under the cold, dry conditions provided by Svalbard.

  • Project 3: The Origin, Evolution, and Volatile Inventories of Terrestrial Planets

    This research project brings together a large team of scientists with a unified goal understanding the origin and evolution of volatiles (C, H, O, and N) in planetary interiors. It includes a theoretical study of planet formation with focus of addressing the abundance of volatiles in objects that ultimately combine to form the terrestrial planets. The project gains from information being currently revealed through the NASA Messenger mission in orbit around Mercury. The project has an experimental component that focuses on studying volatiles deep in planetary interiors using ultra-high pressure devices and molecular spectroscopy for species interrogation. Finally, it includes a systematic study of the chemistry of mineral inclusions in diamonds, where diamond serves to trap minerals in a natural high pressure container. These studies allow CIW NAI scientists probe the chemistry of Earth’s deep mantle and help reveal how Earth’s plate tectonics may have started.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1
  • Project 2: Origin and Evolution of Organic Matter in the Solar System

    This project focuses on understanding the origin and evolution primitive bodies in the solar system (e.g. comets, interplanetary dust particles [IDPs], and primitive, undifferentiated, meteorites). The first focus area involves detailed studies of the water/ice content of bodies in the outer solar system. We seek to learn more about the mechanism by which water is retained in these bodies and learn more about what water(ice)/rock ratios tell us about the evolution of the early solar system. The second part of this study involves understanding the origin and evolution of organic solids in comets, IDPs, and primitive meteorites. These organic solids are one of the largest reservoirs of carbon, outside of the Sun, and are only now being understood from the perspective of their origin and the unique history they record of processes that occurred in the early solar system.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 7.1
  • Project 1: Looking Outward: Studies of the Physical and Chemical Evolution of Planetary Systems

    This project five main objectives focused broadly on understand the origin and early evolution of our solar system. First, we have employed a new planet finding spectrometer to aid in detecting planetary systems surrounding neighboring stars. Second, we have begun the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search project to detect giant planets around nearby loss mass dwarf stars. Third, we focused on understanding of radial transport and mixing of matter in protoplanetary disks. Fourth, we have continued to survey of small planetary size objects in the Kuiper belt. Fifth, we have continued our studies of the composition, structure, and ages of circumstellar disks.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1