2011 Annual Science Report

Pennsylvania State University Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings

Project Summary

The focus of this project is to explore indicators of life outside of Earth, both within the Solar System and on extrasolar planets. The work includes studies of the chemistry and composition of the Solar System, and the past history of conceivable sites for life in the Solar System. We also look for habitable planets outside the Solar System; work on developing new techniques to find and observe potentially habitable planets; and model the dynamics, evolution and current status of a variety of extrasolar planets.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
21 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

4.1.1 Research by Kasting and collaborators shows SO2 is likely to be inadequate to explain early warm Mars. Collaboration with VPL and graduate student Haqq-Misra, Ramirez.

4.1.2 Continued research by Ohmoto and collaborators of early CH4 in the atmosphere of terrestrial planets and role of volcanoes in CO2 outgassing. Details now reported in “Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks”

4.2 Progress by Lyons and collaborators continued of 17O/18O fractionation due to CO2 self-shielding during photolysis. Work underway on N2 and role of H2. Details now reported in “Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks”

4.3 Sigurdsson and collaborators in the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds continued research on extrasolar planets: graduate student Rachel Worth commenced project on radial transport in the solar system in collaboration with Sigurdsson and House. Pathfinder near infrared spectrograph operated at HET telescope, U-Ne calibration for near IR and implementation of NIST supplied lasercomb operated and cross-calibrated.
Some highlights include:

PSARC supported 6 astronomy graduate students wholly or in part in 2010-11, working with several associated faculty, including new junior faculty, as part of an initiative to increase the astrobiology effort and bootstrap new initiatves.
A new pathfinder near-infrared spectrograph was completed and taken to PSU’s HET telescope in Texas, where new calibration techniques using U-Ne lamps and an infrared laser frequency comb were tested and used on science targets. In part due to support from NAI to demonstrate the feasibility of this technique, the NSF awarded a Major Reseach Instrumentation grant in 2011 to build a facility class Planetfinder spectrograph (PI Mahadevan).
Graduate student Matthew Route, in collaboration with Prof. Wolszczan, did radio observations to find sub-stellar companions to nearby stars, and graduate student Sara Gettel continued long term monitoring of bright giant stars, looking for long period exoplanets.

Prof. Wright continued ongoing observations of exoplanets and looking for new exoplanets, using radial velocity monitoring, and started a new project on early Solar System formation. Prof. Wright continued work on the Exoplanets catalog http://exoplanets.org/
Graduate student Rachel Worth started modeling of transport of meteorite ejecta in the Solar System in collaboration with Profs House and Sigurdsson, using NAI Hawaii computing facilities. Research on early Solar System dynamical evolution continued.

Prof. Sigurdsson attended an NAI sponsored workshop on “Synthetic Biology, Evolution and Astrobiology”, at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, participating in a working group on Biosignatures, a new working group on “Laws of Biology”, and an ad hoc working group on Computational Complexity in Evolution.

Several NAI supported researchers presented reviews and new results at the NAI co-sponsored “Extreme Solar Systems II” Conference.