2015 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 2.2 Reports Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

Project Reports

  • Life Underground

    Our multi-disciplinary team from the University of Southern California, California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Lab, Desert Research Institute, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Northwestern University is developing and employing field, laboratory, and modeling approaches aimed at detecting and characterizing microbial life in the subsurface—the intraterrestrials. We posit that if life exists, or ever existed, on Mars or other planetary body in our solar system, evidence thereof would most likely be found in the subsurface. This study takes advantage of unique opportunities to explore the subsurface ecosystems on Earth through boreholes, mine shafts, sediment coring, marine vents and seeps, and deeply-sourced springs. Access to the subsurface—both continental and marine—and broad characterization of the rocks, fluids, and microbial inhabitants is central to this study. Our focused research themes require subsurface samples for laboratory and in situ experiments. Specifically, we are carrying out in situ life detection, culturing and isolation of heretofore unknown intraterrestrial archaea and bacteria using numerous novel and traditional techniques, and incorporating new and existing data into regional and global metabolic energy models.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 4.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • Inv 1 – Geochemical Reactor: Energy Production at Water-Rock Interfaces

    INV 1 examines water-rock interactions in the lab and in the field, to characterize the geochemical gradients that could be present at water-rock interfaces on Earth and other worlds, taking into account different ocean and crustal chemistries. We have fully investigated serpentinization as the most likely of all possible environments for life’s emergence on Earth as well as other water-rich worlds – a key goal for astrobiology as stated in the NASA Astrobiology Roadmap 2008. (Russell, 2015). Serpentinization is now recognized as fundamental to delivering the appropriate chemical disequilibria at the emergence of life. And the fact that this process is likely inevitable on any icy, wet and rocky planet makes its study fundamental to emergence of life, habitability and habitancy. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the thermodynamic drives to CO2 reduction during the process, great uncertainty exists over just what kind of organic molecules (if any) are delivered to the submarine springs and consequential precipitate mounds. In attempts to clarify what these might be we have undertaken thermodynamic modelling and experimental investigations of the serpentinization process.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1
  • Analytical Protocols and Techniques for Detection and Quantitative Analysis of Complex Organics in Planetary Environments

    Robotic planetary missions enable critical in situ investigations into the character, diversity and distribution of organic compounds in their native environments. The next-generation mass spectrometers being developed for planetary exploration promise enhanced capabilities to elucidate the molecular structure of detected organic compounds via tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS), and to disambiguate potential biosignatures via ultra high-resolution mass discrimination. The in situ detection and potential sequencing of individual organic polymers using synthetic trans-membrane nanopores is another example of an innovative technology geared towards the identification of key organic compounds. We are engaged in evaluating and extending such innovative technologies to address astrobiological initiatives on future NASA missions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1
  • Inv 3 – Planetary Disequilibria: Characterizing Ocean Worlds and Implications for Habitability

    INV 3 looks at how, where, and for how long might
disequilibria exist in icy worlds, and what that may imply in terms of
habitability. A major interest for this work is how ocean composition affects habitability. We are investigating chemistry behaves under conditions of pressure, temperature, and composition not found on Earth. Our simulations of deep ocean world chemistry couple with models for ocean dynamics, ocean ice interaction, and tectonics within the ice. We are examining each of these, how they interact, and how they relate to what future missions may discover. Members of our team are involved in missions to Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn, and Pluto. We are also involved in studies of exoplanets, and are working to understand how ocean worlds like Ganymede and Europa might provide analogues for more distant watery super-earths.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1 4.2 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Exoplanet Detection and Characterization: Observations, Techniques and Retrieval

    In this task, VPL team members use observations and theory to better understand how to detect and characterize extrasolar planets. Techniques to improve the detection of extrasolar planets, and in particular smaller, potentially Earth-like planets are developed, along with techniques to probe the physical and chemical properties of exoplanet atmospheres. These latter techniques require analysis of spectra to best understand how it might be possible to identify whether an extrasolar planet is able to support life, or already has life on it.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 7.2
  • Inv 4 – Observable Chemical Signatures on Icy Worlds: A Window Into Habitability of Subsurface Oceans

    INV 4 aims to answer the Key Question: What can observable surface chemical signatures tell us about the habitability of subsurface oceans? We will shed light on the evolution of ocean materials expressed on the surface of airless icy bodies and exposed to relevant surface temperatures, vacuum, photolysis and radiolysis. To this end, we have initiated an experimental program designed to establish the extent to which chemical compositions of icy world surfaces are indicative of subsurface ocean chemistry. Our initial experiments have focused on freezing solutions of sodium, magnesium, sulfate and chloride – four commonly suggested major components of Europa’s Ocean.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 7.1
  • Detection of Biosignatures

    The project is developing methods of interpreting data, detecting novelty, and identifying biosignatures in data at multiple scales (Figure 1). Investigation will improve detection and decrease diagnostic uncertainty in selecting high-probability regions and high-priority samples. In year one, objectives are to develop algorithms for orbital data analysis and feature extraction and to develop algorithms for novelty detection.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1 7.2
  • Interstellar and Nebular Chemistry: Theory and Observations

    We continue to undertake theoretical and observational studies pertaining to the origin and evolution of organics in Planetary Systems, including the Solar System. In this performance period, we have focused on studies aimed at understanding the origin and processing of organics in the earliest evolutionary phases of stars like the Sun. These include formation pathways and related isotopic fractionation effects.

    We have continued observational programs designed to explore the chemical composition of comets and establishing their potential for delivering prebiotic organic materials and water to the young Earth and other planets. State-of-the-art international facilities are being employed to conduct multi-wavelength simultaneous studies of comets in order to gain more accurate abundances, distributions, temperatures, and other physical parameters of various cometary species. We are also leading an international collaboration to study the organic composition of Titan with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1 3.2 7.1 7.2
  • Laboratory Investigations Into Chemical Evolution in Icy Solids: Mars, Carbonaceous Meteorites, and ISM

    The goal of this project is to investigate chemical and physical changes and properties of molecules in low-temperature environments, such as found in interstellar space and the outer regions of the Solar System. Some of the molecules studied have been detected in meteorites and samples returned from NASA missions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 3.1
  • Solar System Analogs for Exoplanet Observations

    The worlds of our Solar System can provide an important testing ground for ideas and techniques relevant to characterizing exoplanets. In this task, we use observations and simulations of Solar System planets to understand how astronomers and astrobiologists will recognize signs of habitability and life in future observations of rocky exoplanets. Work in this area this past year includes the first-ever direct detection of molecular nitrogen collision-induced absorption in Earth’s whole-disk spectrum, which can be used to indicate atmospheric pressure and, thus, habitability. Also in this task, VPL scientists have proposed techniques for using color to distinguish Earth-like exoplanets from other types of worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 2.2 7.1 7.2
  • Modeling Habitable Environments Generated by Water/rock Reactions

    This project within the RPL NAI seeks to develop a framework for predicting biological potential (for example, volumetric biomass abundance) as a function of enviromental variables such as rock and fluid composition, water-to-rock ratio, and temperature. Building on the prediction that energy availability will be a key limitation in subsurface systems, we evaluating how variabliity in these environmental factors changes the potential to generate energy through particular metabolisms, and how that potential compares to the corresponding energetic demands of life within a particular set of physicochemcial conditions. We inform and ground truth this approach by comparing the landscape of energy availability in natural systems, such as the CROMO system, to the distribution of microorganisms observed there.

  • Undergraduate Research Associates in Astrobiology (URAA)

    2015 saw the twelfth session of our summer program for talented science students (Under-graduate Research Associates in Astrobiology), a ten-week residential research program tenured at Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland, College Park (http://astrobiology.gsfc.nasa.gov/education.html). Competition was again very keen, with an over-subscription ratio of 4.7. Students applied from over 19 Colleges and Universities in the United States, and 4 Interns from 4 institutions were selected. Each Intern carried out a defined research project working directly with a GCA scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center or the University of Maryland. As a group, the Associates met with a different GCA scientist each week, learning about his/her respective area of research, visiting diverse laboratories and gaining a broader view of astrobiology as a whole. At summer’s end, each Associate reported his/her research in a power point presentation projected nation-wide to member Teams in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, as part of the NAI Forum for Astrobiology Research (FAR) Series.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 6.2 7.1