2013 Annual Science Report

Carnegie Institution of Washington Reporting  |  SEP 2012 – AUG 2013

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
18 Institutions
5 Project Reports
89 Publications
5 Field Sites

Project Reports

  • Project 1: Looking Outward: Studies of the Physical and Chemical Evolution of Planetary Systems

    We continue to apply theory and observations to investigate the nature and distribution of extrasolar planets both through radial velocity and astrometric methods, the composition of circumstellar disks, early mixing and transport in young disks, and late mixing and planetary migration in the Solar System, and Solar System bodies.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1
  • Project 4: Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life

    We investigate the geochemical steps that may have lead to the origin of life, focusing on identifying and characterizing mineral catalyzed organic reaction networks that lead from simple volatiles, e.g., CO2, NH3, and H2, up to greater molecular complexity. We continue to explore the role of minerals to enhance molecular selection, both isomeric and chiral selection, as well as molecular organization on mineral surfaces. We continue to refine our understanding of the evolution of mineralogical complexity in the context of planetary evolution.

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

    We conduct observational analytical research on the volatile and organic rich Solar System Bodies by focusing on astronomical surveying of outer solar system objects and performing in-house analyses of meteorite, interplanetary dust particle, and Comet Wild 2/81P samples with an emphasis on characterizing the distribution, state and chemical history of primitive organic matter. We continue to study the mechanism of formation of refractory organic solids in primitive bodies and determine the origin of isotopic anomalies in organic solids in primitive solar system materials.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 7.1
  • Project 3: The Origin, Evolution, and Volatile Inventories of Terrestrial Planets

    We study the origin and evolution of the terrestrial planets with a special emphasis on CHON volatiles, their delivery and retention in the deep interiors of terrestrial planets. We will experimentally investigate how CHON volatiles may be retained even during magma ocean phases of terrestrial evolution. We investigate the early Earth’s recycling processes studying the isotopic composition of diamonds, diamond inclusions, and associated lithologies. We continue to integrate new information from the NASA Messenger Mission to Mercury into the broader context of understanding the inner Solar System planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1
  • Project 5: Geological-Biological Interactions

    We continue to study the intersection between geology and biology. We continue to explore how sub-seafloor interactions support deep ocean hydrothermal ecosystems. We study life’s adaption to extremes of pressure, cold, and salinity. We adapt and apply multiple isotopic sulfur geochemistry towards the understanding of microbial metabolism and as a means of detecting ancient metabolisms recorded in the rock record through characteristic sulfur isotopic signatures. We apply state-of-the-art methods to derive chemical and isotopic biosignatures of life in the Earth’s most ancient rocks.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1