2011 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Executive Summary

Our NAI scientists are members of the New York Center for Astrobiology (NYCA; http://www.origins.rpi.edu/), based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in partnership with the University at Albany, Syracuse University, the University of Arizona, and the University of North Dakota. Our team joined the NAI in Spring 2009, following the selection of our CAN5 proposal “Setting the stage for life: From interstellar clouds to early Earth and Mars”. Our research is devoted to elucidating the origins of both life itself and of habitable planetary environments, in our own Solar System and in planet-forming regions around other stars: our long-term goal is to develop realistic, widely applicable models for the emergence of molecular complexity leading to life. This is being accomplished through a synergy of interdisciplinary research that unifies astronomical observations, laboratory experiments and computational modeling.

Our team is also fully committed ... Continue reading.

Field Sites
15 Institutions
9 Project Reports
53 Publications
1 Field Site

Project Reports

  • Project 5: Vistas of Early Mars: In Preparation for Sample Return

    To understand the history of life in the solar system requires knowledge of how hydrous minerals form on planetary surfaces, and the role these minerals play in the development of potential life forms. One hydrous mineral found on Earth and inferred from in situ measurements on Mars, is the mineral Jarosite, KFe3(SO4)2(OH)6. We are investigating whether radiometric ages, specifically 40Ar/39Ar ages on jarosite can be interpreted to accurately record climate change events on Mars. This project not only requires understanding the conditions required for jarosite formation and preservation on planetary surfaces, but also assessing under what conditions its “radiometric clock” can be reset (e.g., during changes in environmental conditions such as temperature). By studying jarosites formed by a variety of processes on Earth, we will be prepared to analyze and properly interpret ages measured from jarosite obtained from future Mars sample return missions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 7.1
  • Project 9: Microenvironmental Influences on Prebiotic Synthesis

    Before biotic, i.e., “biologically-derived” pathways for the formation of essential biological molecules such as RNA, DNA and proteins could commence, prebiotic pathways were needed to form the molecules that were the basis for the earliest life. Much research has been done on possible non-biological routes to synthesis of RNA, thought by many to be the best candidate or model for the emergence of life. Our work focuses on possible physicochemical microenvironments on early earth that could have influenced and even directed or templated the formation of RNA or its predecessors.

  • 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.

  • 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
  • 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.

  • 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 and other processes 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
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Project 8: Survival of Sugars in Ice/Mineral Mixtures on High Velocity Impact

    Understanding the delivery and preservation of organic molecules in meteoritic material is important to understanding the origin of life on Earth. Though we know that organic molecules are abundant in meteorites, comets, and interplanetary dust particles, few studies have examined how impact processes affect their chemistry and survivability under extreme temperatures and pressures. We are investigating how impact events may change the structure of simple sugars, both alone and when combined with ice mixtures. The experiments will allow us to understand how sugar chemistry is affected by high pressure events and to contrast the survival probabilities of sugars in meteorite and comet impacts. This will lead to a better understanding of how organic molecules are affected during their delivery to Earth. This project leverages expertise in two different NAI nodes, increasing the collaborative interaction among the NAI investigators

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1 4.3