2011 Annual Science Report

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Executive Summary

The central goal of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology (hereafter, GCA) is to understand how organic compounds are created, destroyed, and altered during the formation and evolution of a planetary system, leading up to the origin of life on a planet such as Earth. Planetary systems form by collapse of dense interstellar cloud cores. Some stages in this evolution can be directly observed when stellar nurseries are imaged, while other stages remain cloaked behind an impenetrable veil of dust and gas. Yet to understand the origin of life on Earth, we must first develop a comprehensive understanding of the formation of our own planetary system. The clues contained in the most primitive bodies from that formative era (comets and primitive meteorites) are central to advancing our understanding of that epoch and of later delivery of volatiles to Earth. To understand the probability of finding life ... Continue reading.

Field Sites
8 Institutions
20 Project Reports
47 Publications
0 Field Sites

Project Reports

  • Advancing Methods for the Analyses of Organics Molecules in Sediments

    Eigenbrode’s astrobiological research focuses on understanding the formation and preservation of organic and isotopic sedimentary records of ancient Earth, Mars, and icy bodies. To this end, and as part of GCA’s Theme IV effort, Eigenbrode seeks to overcome sampling and analytical challenges associated with organic analyses of astrobiology relevant samples with modification and development of contamination tracking, sampling, and analytical methods (primarily GCMS) that improve the recovery of meaningful observations and provide protocol guidance for future astrobiological missions. Advances have been made in five sub-studies and manuscript writing is in progress. Studies include: 1 & 2. Advancing protocols for organic molecular studies of iron-oxide rich sediments and sediments laden with perchlorate, 3. Carbon Isotopic Records of the Neoarchean, 4. Solid-phase sorbtive extraction of organic molecules in glacial ice, and 5. Amino acid composition of glacial ice.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Cosmic Ice Laboratory Progress Report

    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 continued with a manuscript in preparation. Projects on sulfuric-acid hydrates were completed, and a new project involving thermal chemistry at Europa-like temperatures was begun. 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.

  • Exploring the Atmosphere of Mars at Infrared Wavelengths and the Organic Volatile Composition of Comet 2P/Encke

    Yana L. Radeva is a Research Associate at The Catholic University of America, conducting her postdoctoral research at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. During the time period September 1, 2010 – August 30, 2011, she analyzed high-resolution infrared spectra of the Martian atmosphere, searching for biomarker gases (such as methane), and studying the spatial distribution, diurnal and seasonal evolution of trace species. Dr. Radeva analyzed data-sets acquired with the NIRSPEC instrument on the Keck II telescope during the 2009-2010 observing campaign, covering a range of Ls = 8 – 83° (early through late spring in the Martian Northern hemisphere). Dr. Radeva also analyzed data acquired with the ultra-high resolution infrared spectrometer CRIRES at ESO’s VLT, and retrieved abundances and rotational temperatures from the spectral lines of O2 (a1Δg), used as a tracer for ozone. She presented spatial maps of ozone on Mars, and a comparison with models of the ozone distribution, at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting (December 2010). Dr. Radeva published a paper on results of her dissertation work, entitled “A Newly Developed Fluorescence Model for C2H6 ν5 and Application to Cometary Spectra Acquired with NIRSPEC at Keck II” (ApJ, 729, 2, 135). She also presented results of her analysis of the organic composition of comet 2P/Encke at the annual AAS Division for Planetary Sciences conference (October 2010).

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1
  • Organic Chemistry in a Dynamic Solar Nebula: Lab Studies and Flight Mission Implementation

    Over the past year we have concentrated on four major activities. The first is laboratory research on the generation of organics and the trapping of noble gases via Fischer-Tropsch type (FTT) reactions. The second is an attempt to understand and model the interrelated carbon and oxygen chemical cycles in a dynamic, turbulent nebula. The third is preparation for the design phase of the OSIRIS-REx mission, especially the characterization of regolith properties of the Type B asteroid that we are targeting. The final is proposal activity leading to the (possible) selection of a Discovery-class comet exploration mission (Comet Hopper or CHopper). In both of the mission activities, my goal has been to ensure that the missions can extract the maximum knowledge of the chemical and physical processes that occurred in the early solar system from the bodies that will be visited.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • Radio Observations of Simple Organics: Tracing the Origins and Preservation of Solar System Materials

    We have continued observational programs designed to explore the chemical composition of comets and establishing their potential for delivering pre-biotic organic materials and water to the young Earth and other planets. State of the art, international facilities are being employed to conduct multiwavelength, simultaneous, studies of comets in order to gain more accurate abundances, distributions, temperatures, and other physical parameters of various cometary species. Additionally, observational programs designed to test current theories of the origins of isotopically fractionated meteorite (and cometary) materials are currently underway. Recent chemical models have suggested that in the cold dense cores of star forming regions, significant isotope enrichment can occur for nitrogen and possibly vary between molecular species and trace an object’s chemical evolution. Observations are being conducted at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths of HCN and HNC isotopologues for comparison to other nitrogen-bearing species to measure fractionation in cold star forming regions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • Observations of the Water and Organic Content of Protoplanetary Disks and Comets

    The Blake group has been carrying out joint observational and laboratory program with NAI node scientists on the water and simple organic chemistry in the protoplanetary disk analogs of the solar nebula and in comets. It has been a highly productive year. The major overview papers outlining the results from our extensive (>100 disks) Spitzer IRS survey of the molecular emission from the terrestrial planet forming region are now published, and the initial follow-up work with GSFC scientists on the high spectral resolution ground based observations of such emission has just been submitted for publication. We have probed the outer disk’s water emission with the Herschel HIFI instrument, and also measured the D/H ratio in a Jupiter Family Comet for the first time with Herschel – finding a value consistent with that in the Earth’s oceans. Now that ALMA is ramping up toward operations, we look forward to high angular resolution observations of simple organics in the outer regions of disks and comets over the coming years. The full suite of results will permit the first detailed examination of the radial water and gas phase organic chemistry in planet-forming environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1
  • Remote Sensing of Organic Volatiles in Planetary and Cometary Atmospheres

    We developed state-of-the-art spectroscopic methods to analyze our extensive infrared database of Mars and cometary spectra. In the last two years, we acquired the deepest and most comprehensive search for biomarkers on Mars using powerful infrared high-resolution spectrometers (CRIRES, NIRSPEC, CSHELL) at high-altitude observatories (VLT, Keck-II, NASA-IRTF respectively). In order to analyze this unprecedented wealth of data, we developed highly automated and advanced processing techniques that correct for bad-pixels/cosmic-rays and perform spatial and spectral straightening of anarmophic optics data with milli-pixel precision. We also constructed line-by-line models of the ν7 band of ethane (C2H6), the ν3 and ν2 bands of methanol (CH3OH), we compiled spectral information for H2O and HDO using 5 databases (BT2, VTT, HITEMP, HITRAN and GEISA), and compiled spectral information NH3 using 4 databases (BYT2, TROVE, HITRAN and GEISA). These great advancements have allowed us to understand the infrared spectrum of planetary bodies with unprecedented precision.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 7.1 7.2
  • Composition of Parent Volatiles in Comets

    During the period covered by this progress report we conducted an extensive observing campaign on the Jupiter-family comet 103P/Hartley-2 – the target of the EPOXI fly-by mission. We studied the volatile composition of two other Jupiter-family comets – 10P/Tempel-2 and 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. We continued our multi-comet surveys of spin temperatures and searches for deuterated species. We characterized the abundances of several prebiotic molecules in comet C/2007 N3 Lulin. We also organized NAI-funded “Workshop on cometary taxonomies” held in Annapolis, MD

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 4.1
  • The Dynamical Origin and Evolution of COmetary Reservoirs

    Comet taxonomy can only achieve its full significance if the chemical composition of a particular object is linked to its formation location in the solar nebula. This can only be accomplished through a comprehensive, end-to-end dynamical model of the origin and evolution of the comet reservoirs. Such is the goal of this program. Toward these ends, we have recently shown that most of the Oort cloud was probably captured from the proto-planetary disks of other stars when the Sun was in its birth star cluster.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 4.3
  • X-Ray Emission From 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 two directions: 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. Notable results are that X-ray variation of V1647 Ori during its mass accretion outbursts in 2003-2005 and from 2008 clearly followed the optical/IR variations that trace the mass accretion activity. However, we also found a possible discrepancy between these bands in the latest data in 2010, and therefore plan to keep monitoring the star in X-rays.

  • High-Resolution Spectroscopy of Comets at Infrared Wavelengths

    Dr. Lucas Paganini has initiated a robust means for quantitative detections of sulfur compounds at submillimeter and infrared (IR). He was awarded 20 hours observing time with the ESO’s sub-millimeter and far-IR Herschel Space Observatory for a proposed investigation on the analysis of OPR and D/H of hydrogen sulfide in comets. And he collaborated extensively on astronomical observations and scientific interpretation of comets 103P/Hartley 2, C/2003 K4 (LINEAR), and 10P/Tempel 2.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • Evolution of Protoplanetary Disks

    Drs. Aki Roberge and Carol Grady have continued work on two Open Time Key Projects for the Herschel Space Observatory, a far-infrared ESA mission launched in May 2009. One project (GASPS) is illuminating the evolution of gas abundances and chemistry in protoplanetary disks over the planet-forming phase; Drs. Roberge and Grady were co-authors on two GASPS journal published articles this year. The other (DUNES) has sensitively probed the Sun’s nearest neighbors for signs of cold debris disks associated with extrasolar Kuiper Belts; Dr. Roberge was a co-author on two DUNES journal articles published this year. Dr. Roberge was also a science team member for a SOFIA instrument concept that was developed in 2011 and proposed to NASA. The instrument, called the High Resolution Mid-Infrared Spectrometer (HIRMES), has a primary science goal of chemical evolution studies in protoplanetary disks.

  • Research Activities in Planetary Environments Lab

    A new instrument called VAPoR (Volatile Analysis by Pyrolysis of Regolith) was developed to demonstrate an end-to-end pyrolysis time of flight mass spectrometer system with sufficient mass resolution, mass range, sensitivity, precision, and dynamic range to be applied to astrobiology missions. The mass spectrometer derived from this development can be used as an in situ detector of water, noble gases, oxygen, and other potential biomarkers such as organic molecules that are signatures of extinct or extant life and isotopic composition of elements such as C, H, and S that are fractionated by biological processes. A small lightweight mass spectrometer such as VAPoR will conserve precious mass, power, and volume resources in future missions to polar regions of the Moon, asteroids, comets, Mars, Europa, Enceladus, or Titan. The VAPoR instrument was tested most recently during the 2011vDesert Research and Technology Studies (DRATS) field campaign where detailed in situ bulk chemical characterization of volatiles released from regolith samples was carried out.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1
  • Research Activities in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory

    The Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory is 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. This year, we conclusively demonstrated the presence of indigenous nucleobases and purines in carbonaceous chondrites, resolving a 50-year-old debate. We continued analyses of meteoritic amino acids, which led to both the first detection of these compounds in thermally altered meteorites and a more detailed understanding of their presence in aqueously altered meteorites. We collaborated with researchers at various institutions to bring our analytical expertise to the study of precious and unique samples. We look forward to our increased participation in the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 3.1 7.1
  • NIR Spectroscopic Observations of Circumstellar Disks Around Young Stars

    As a research scientist in the Planetary Systems Laboratory at NASA GSFC, A. Mandell studies the formation and evolution of planetary systems and the structure and composition of the atmospheres of extra-solar planets utilizing near-infrared spectroscopy. Mandell’s current observing campaigns focus primarily on high-resolution ground-based spectroscopy of circumstellar disks and extrasolar planetary transits and secondary eclipses using instruments on the Keck II telescope and the Very Large Telescope. Additionally, Mandell assists as a co-investigator on computational studies of terrestrial planet formation and evolution using N-body simulations of planetary accretion.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1
  • An Encyclopedia of Astrobiology and Using the Large Millimeter Telescope for Astrobiological Observations

    Irvine and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts have begun commissioning the Large Millimeter Telescope, the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world operating at short millimeter wavelengths. This is a joint project with the country of Mexico.

  • Collisional Evolution of Planetesimal Systems and Debris Disk Patterns

    Marc Kuchner and his graduate student Erika Nesvold are working on a new tool for modeling the collisional evolution and 3-D distribution of planetesimals in planetary systems and debris disks. We plan to use this tool for interpreting images of planetary systems: modeling images and other data on circumstellar disks. We expect to be able to use this approach to locate hidden exoplanets via their dynamical influence on the shapes of the disks. We also expect to use our new models to understand the evolution of planetesimals in the solar system during the time when these planetesimals probably delivered the Earth’s ocean water.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1
  • Fingerprinting Late Additions to the Earth and Moon via the Study of Highly Siderophile Elements in Lunar Impact Melt Rocks

    Three new lunar Apollo 17 impact melt breccias have been examined for highly siderophile element (HSE) abundances and Os isotopic compositions. A now considerable database for impact melt rocks from this site is consistent with a uniform signature imparted to rocks from this site by a single major impactor, most likely the Serenitatis impactor. The composition of this impactor was broadly chondritic, but characteristically enriched in Re, Ru and Pd relative to most chondrites. Dynamical calculations and HSE measurements on diogenites suggest that stochastic late accretion can be extrapolated to relatively small bodies, the size of Vesta.

  • 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 in Hawai’i and Chile. 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. Major strides in these areas were realized during this period of performance.

  • 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 desert-varnished basalts and extracts of the Murchison meteorite. 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 maintain high vacuum integrity while changing out samples. Finally, our work on improving operational protocols for laser analysis of samples had helped the design of the mass spectrometer on the 2018 ExoMars rover mission, which includes a pulsed laser mode.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1