2012 Annual Science Report

Carnegie Institution of Washington Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

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
28 Institutions
5 Project Reports
337 Publications
14 Field Sites

Project Reports

  • Project 5: Geological-Biological Interactions

    This project seeks to better understand the interplay between microbes and extreme environments. Towards this end our NAI supported scientists study hot spring environments, both continental and sub marine, environments of active serpentinization where pH may exceed 11, and in the high Arctic. We use molecular, isotopic, and molecular biological approaches to get at the core of the relationship between the microbial world and the natural energy provided by geological processes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • Project 3: The Origin, Evolution, and Volatile Inventories of Terrestrial Planets

    Project 3 focuses on understanding the nature of volatiles (principally water and gase like carbon dioxide and methane) in planetary interiors. The origin of Earth’s oceans and the initiation of plate tectonics may have related through the retention of water deep in Earth’s mantle. In this project scientists study how volatiles behave in silicate melts and Earth’s deep interior. They also study other rock planets, e.g. Mars and Mercury to understand how the presence or absence of volatiles may have lead to such disparate outcomes relative to Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1
  • Project 4: Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life

    The origins of life on Earth remains one of the outstanding problems in science. This project seeks to go to the root of the problem and focus on what were likely critical first steps. The research focuses on the natural synthesis of small organic molecules and subsequent interaction with potentially catalytic mineral phases opening up the system to greater chemical complexity. Organic mineral interactions are complex and difficult to analyze. Using a variety of powerful spectroscopic and mass spectrometric tools we are able to perform experiments that yield data that aid our understanding of such interactions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Project 2: Origin and Evolution of Organic Matter in the Solar System

    Extraterrestrial organic matter as is found in comets and certain meteorites has the potential to tell us much about the origin of the solar system, the origin of planetary volatiles, and possible the origins of life. In this project, we bring a powerful array of analytical methods to bare on understanding extraterrestrial organic matter at the molecular level. Our work links astronomy, chemistry, physics, and planetary science.

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

    This project integrates the work of Carnegie Institution Astronomers in the 1) the search for extrasolar planets, 2) understanding the flow of matter in protoplanetary disks around young stars, 3) understanding the origin of Near Earth Objects, in particular, their relationship with objects in the asteroid belt, and 4) understanding the composition of disks around young stars and the potential delivery of volatiles to terrestrial planets in other solar systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1