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2005 Annual Science Report

University of Hawaii, Manoa Reporting  |  JUL 2004 – JUN 2005

Executive Summary

Water is the medium in which the chemistry of all life on Earth takes place. Water is the habitat in which life first emerged and in which all of it still thrives. Water has modified Earth’s geology and climate to a degree that has allowed life to persist to the present epoch. We propose to create a research and education framework that links the biological, chemical, geological, and astronomical sciences to better understand the origin, history, distribution, and role of water as it relates to life in the universe. We focus on scenarios involving the sources and distribution of water in planetary systems and the delivery and incorporation of water into rocky planets that orbit within stellar habitable zones. Our framework connects research on major aspects of planetary water — in effect we aim to understand the terms of a “watery Drake equation”. Sub-themes of our research include:

  • Water is formed in the interstellar medium and in the denser molecular clouds that give rise to star-forming regions. Differences in elemental abundance, gas-phase chemistry, and grain chemistry will result in measurable variation in the abundance of water in those regions. Our team will use sub-millimeter and infrared facilities to quantify the presence of water ice in the interstellar clouds, and to characterize and understand the environments where water exists in space.
  • Comet ices preserve a chemical record of this precursor interstellar material, and detailed remote measurements of the isotopes of hydrogen in these icy bodies has shown that comets contributed some, but not all of the water to the Earth’s oceans. Comets are also rich in the organic materials which are essential for life on Earth, and team members will investigate the inventory of both organics and ices in these small outer solar system denizens: comets, Centaurs and Kuiper Belt objects.
  • Because of the high abundance of water ice in the interstellar medium, water has played a vital role in physical and chemical processes which have lead to the formation of astrobiologically important molecules. UH NAI team members will perform cutting-edge laboratory chemistry experiments to address the questions of how the basic life ingredients can be formed abiotically in extraterrestrial environments such as molecular clouds and the crucial role that water has played in their formation, and to understand the physical processes.
  • UH NAI team will use lab equipment to study the minerals in meteorites which formed as a result of interaction with liquid water early in the solar system. These minerals preserve a record of aqueous activity in their parent bodies that provides information about the abundance and distribution of water in the primordial solar nebula. The meteorites record the incorporation of water into silicate material in the primordial Solar System as an early step in its eventual inclusion in larger bodies, including planets. The cosmochemical record in meteorites shows that a large range of water abundance existed in the early Solar System, perhaps as a result of removal of water from the warm interior of the primordial nebula.
  • Mars is the planet most resembling Earth, it contains unambiguous evidence for the activity of past and present water, and is probably the most likely to host or have hosted extant or extinct life. Studies of the history and action of water on Mars are thus of great importance in this regard. Our studies will model the hydrothermal and low-temperature alteration of crustal minerals and rocks by water, and team members will combine this with data from Earth observations and recent Mars missions to assess the Mars water inventory and its habitability.
  • Water has been involved in life since its first appearance on early Earth. Leading life origin theories invoke prebiotic chemistry in low-temperature aqueous solutions, supplied with prebiotic molecules by atmospheric chemistry, or in the hydrothermal brines produced by high-temperature water-rock interactions. The first 3 Gy of life on this planet was played out entirely in aquatic environments. Water is also involved in geochemical reactions that maintain surface conditions permissive of life. The presence of water significantly alters the properties of minerals in Earth’s crust and mantle, something crucial to the operation of plate tectonics. We are investigating the water-rock chemistry in the deep oceans and its relation to habitats for life. The reaction between silicate rocks and water, at high temperature (submarine hot springs near mid ocean ridges), produces aqueous fluids and altered mineral surfaces whose thermodynamic disequilibria are potential energy sources for life
  • Besides water, life also requires a source of carbon and nutrients, and an environment that is conducive to the propagation of genetic information. Many aquatic environments on Earth are extreme from this point of view. By studying these we can better understand what may limit the origin and persistence of life in aquatic habitats elsewhere in the universe. These extreme environments include lava-water interfaces in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as the magma from Kilaeua flows into the ocean, as well as steam geysers, high altitude, and field work in volcanically active Iceland. We will focus here on a comparative study of microbial biodiversity and metabolic activity in these extreme aquatic habitats.
  • We will develop an integrated model of planetary water and its early history on Earth-like planets, which can be used to explore the time-evolution of water on the early Earth, as well as Earth-size planets whose space environment or composition differ from Earth’s. Extraterrestrial aquatic environments may be far more extreme than most encountered on Earth. Water inventories and cycles in Earth-sized planets around other stars may be quite different from our own. Planetary water abundance may be a very sensitive function of the chemistry in the planet-forming nebula, the water abundance in that nebula, the presence of giant planets and factors such as ultraviolet radiation from the central star.
  • Finally, we will develop concepts and prototype hardware for instruments that could be used to detect and characterize life on other planetary bodies. By developing and testing models and exploring the outcomes of alternative scenarios we seek to determine what controls the abundance and distribution of water and hypothetical aqueous habitats in other planetary systems. This research will directly support the NASA search for past or present life on Mars and efforts (such as the NASA Terrestrial Planet Finder) to directly detect and characterize Earth-sized exoplanets.


Science Highlights

  • During year 7 we have improved our experimental apparatus for ultra-high vacuum ice irradiation experiments. In addition to experiments on pure water ice, our team has investigated the formation of the amino acid glycine, and several other organic and inorganic molecules which may be important constituents of outer solar system surfaces.
  • Research continues in the area of looking at eruptive events in young variable stars. Such events are important not only for the growth it provides to the young star, but also for processes of irradiation of disk material, which may give clues to the short-lived intense heating events that affected chondrites and aqueous alteration products in the early solar system. Planetary magnetic fields play a critical role as a shield against irradiation of the planet’s atmosphere. New work is beginning in our group in order to investigate the signatures of extrasolar planetary magnetic fields and to try to understand planet-star interactions, including both stellar activity and extreme-ultraviolet radiation.
  • We have an active program of KBO research which includes orbital studies, physical observations to study the state of the water and organic material on the surfaces of these small outer solar system bodies, in addition to chemical modeling and ice irradiation experiments. A parallel study of the composition of chondritic meteorites and the different aqueous alteration processes will allow us to search for links between different primordial solar system materials.
  • Related to the study of KBOs and comets and the laboratory ice irradiation experiments is a joint observational and laboratory program to understand the comet activity seen in small bodies far from the sun, where equilibrium temperatures are too cold for water ice to sublimate. These investigations help us understand the chemistry and physical processes in the outer solar system.
  • Progress had been made in modeling several aspects of the planet formation processes including dust grain growth, satellite accretion, and delivery of icy planetesimals (water) to the habitable zones of planetary systems.
  • Several areas of research within our team are looking at placing limits on the duration of aqueous alteration events on Mars, and the stability of ice in sublimation environments on Mars, the Moon and in Antarctica. These investigations are combining modeling with laboratory data, meteorite data and space mission observations.
  • UHNAI support has contributed to the development of a center for mass spectrometer development at UH, as well as for the establishment of the Keck Cosmochemistry Laboratory (lead by co-I K. Keil). The lab will be an interdisciplinary environment centered on the delivery of a new ion microprobe (to be delivered by the end of 2005). This new facility will be used to address UH NAI science goals, including investigating how stars, planets and solar system material formed and evolved, looking at the origin of Earth’s water, and understanding processes in interstellar clouds and star forming regions. Linking ion microprobe data from meteorites and comet dust to astronomical observations, while harnessing the perspectives of astronomers, chemists and meteoriticists, will fuel our studies of our origins. Gary Huss has joined the group as head of the laboratory.
  • Looking at the interaction of water and life on Earth, other members of the UHNAI team are working on understanding how biomolecular structure allows microorganisms to adapt to extreme aqueous environments. Thriving microbial communities have been discovered inhabiting physical and chemical regimes which were once assumed to be limiting to life. In related work, our group is beginning a new initiative to study key steps in the evolution of complex life and the potential relationship to aqueous conditions at the time of those events.
  • The team is conducting an exploration of other extreme extreme environments through the utilization of the Ocean Drilling Program borehole observatories to access fluids which sample the sub-seafloor basement biosphere. The efforts are being directed at developing equipment and methods to extract high integrity samples for microbial genetic and metabolic experiments and to characterize the physical conditions in these environments. Our researchers are also part of a rapid response team that can take advantage of seafloor eruptive events which can make material accessible that is not normally sampled. In addition, the team is studying the chemistry at the seafloor, and has made significant progress in understanding the origin of methane and extremely high pH levels in the Mariana forearc.
  • Team members are also setting up to conduct new field work in extreme environments with plans to investigate the sub-surface biosphere in lava tube ecosystems, and an expedition is being planned next year in Iceland to explore sub-glacial lakes, based on new equipment built and tested this year.
  • Many of the research programs being undertaken by the team can benefit from automation and the development of new interdisciplinary computational tools. We are applying genetic algorithms, sophisticated database development, and AI techniques to many of these problems. These new tools will ultimately be useful and implemented for remote autonomous operation of equipment in extreme environments and in space.

Other Collaborative Efforts

  • As an outgrowth of ideas seeded during the post-conference tours during the Bioastronomy 2004 meeting in Iceland a collaborative effort has begun tying together researchers from the UCLA team (E. Young), the Goddard team (M. Mumma) and our Icelandic colleagues to investigate the origin of Earth’s water. Team member G. Huss made ion microprobe measurements on 7 samples from Iceland in order to develop techniques for D/H measurement in preparation for submitting a major proposal to the NASA Interdisciplinary Exploration Science Program.
  • We are collaborating with Lowell Observatory colleagues in order to gain access to some telescope time for our UH NAI research and outreach programs. To this end we have been developing an intelligent scheduler for automated scheduling of the telescope driven by requests. The Lowell 31-inch telescope observing database has been upgraded. An interface to interact with the database has been created, and an intelligent scheduler developed and nearly fully debugged. The complete system will be used for scheduling astronomical observations, both for research and outreach.

Mission Involvement

  • UH NAI Principal Investigator K. Meech is a co-Investigator on NASA’s Deep Impact mission. In addition to continuing to obtain data on the mission target, 9P/Tempel 1 from Nov. 2004 through encounter, Meech undertook the major coordination of world observatories leading up to and during encounter. Along with the outreach activities, these efforts involved 5 postdocs and 5 graduate students.
  • Co-I Toby Owen is heavily involved with the Cassini Saturn mission.

Scientific Conferences & Meetings

Bioastronomy 2004 Meeting — Reykjavik July 12-16, 2004

The series of previous Bioastronomy meetings have played an important role in integrating the broader interests and techniques of both astronomy and biology to understand the origin and evolution of living systems in the universe, and to generating a context for exploration in our solar system and in extrasolar planetary systems. These conferences provide an opportunity for astronomers, biologists, geologists, planetary scientists and those from other disciplines to meet and discuss research of mutual interest for addressing the question of the origin and evolution of life on this planet and elsewhere. Iceland was selected as the meeting site because of its unique environment, boasting a unique sub-arctic ecosystem, at the separating boundary of the Eurasian and North American continental plates. Subglacial Icelandic volcanic eruptions and deposits in Antarctica help us to understand the ice/volcano interacting both on Earth and other astrobiologically important environments.

The SOC, lead by Alan Boss, consisted of 15 international NAI members and collaborators, and the LOC, chaired by Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson of 10 Icelandic colleagues and K. Meech. A total of $104,844 was raised in support of the meeting, from NASA, NSF and private sources, much of this earmarked for travel support. We were able to provide substantial travel support for 24 participants. A total of 230 abstracts were submitted to the conference, 54% from the US, 32% from Europe, 11% from Australia and 19% from other countries. These abstracts were divided into 100 invited and contributed oral talks in a single plenary session, and 130 poster talks. The conference was held at the University Cinema and Conference and Cultural Center on the campus of the University of Iceland and was supported with services from Iceland travel. There were 3 public talks organized during the conference: K. Meech: “Water and Life in the Universe”, E. Gaidos: “Life Under Ice: From Iceland to the outer Solar System”, and A. Boss: “Looking for Earths in Nearby Solar Systems”. A mid-week teacher workshop was organized by UH NAI EPO lead Mary Kadooka and SETI Institute member Pamela Harmon in conjunction with Icelandic colleagues Asta Thorleifsdottir and Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson. Finally, there were 3 post-conference field trips organized to highlight both the unique geology and sub-arctic biology of Iceland as well as Icelandic history.

Star and Planet Formation Day — June 24, 2005

Bo Reipurth organized the Star and Planet Formation Day at the Institute for Astronomy in Hilo. Nineteen talks were presented on a variety of topics in star and planet formation, all by researchers residing within one of the institutes in the Hawaiian islands. About 50 persons attended. The goal of these yearly mini-workshops, of which this is the second, is to bring together all active researchers within Hawaii in the field of star and planet formation, the early solar system, and meteoritics, to present on-going research, and to stimulate joint research across the boundaries of these disciplines.

09:30 Harold Butner (JAC) Comet Observations using the JCMT
09:50 Chad Trujillo (Gemini) Latest Surface Constraints, the Two Intrinsically Brightest KBOs
10:10 Robert Jedicke (IfA) The Thousand Asteroid Light Curve Survey
10:30 Joseph Rhee (Gemini) Gemini Debris Disk Database and Search for IR Excess Stars
10:50   Coffee Break
11:10 Crystal Brogan (IfA) SMA Observations of High Mass Protostellar Objects
11:30 Jonathan Williams (IfA) SMA Observations of the Orion proplyds
12:00   Lunch
13:00 G. Moriarty-Schieven (JAC) L1551 – Sequential Starburst
13:20 Chris Davis (JAC) AO-corrected IR spectroscopy of the base of the SVS13/HH7-11 jet
13:40 Michael Connelley (IfA) An Infrared Imaging Survey of Nearby Class I Objects
14:00 Tracy Beck (Gemini) Tracy Beck (Gemini)
14:20 Michihiro Takami (Subaru) Subaru IR Echelle Spectroscopy of Herbig-Haro Driving Sources
14:40 Watson P. Varricatt (JAC) A Near IR Imaging Survey of Massive Young Stellar Objects
15:00   Coffee Break
15:30 Evgenya Shkolnik (IfA) Spectral Signatures of Star-Planet Interactions
15:50 Eric Gaidos (SOEST) Physics of Planetary Winds and Some Consequences
16:10 Nick Moskowitz (IfA) Hydrodynamic Mass Loss of Planetary Atmospheres
16:20 Eugene Magnier (IfA) Resolving the Brown Dwarf Deficit in Taurus
16:40   Bo Reipurth Persson’s Star: A New FU Orionis Object

Protostars and Planets Meeting — October 24-28, 2005

Bo Reipurth is the principal organizer of the Protostars and Planets V conference. The Protostars and Planets series of conferences are the flagships in the field of star and planet formation and meteoritics. Held every 7 years, they review the state of the field and bring scientists and students together from a wide range of disciplines. The PPV conference will be held at the Waikoloa Hilton on the Big Island of Hawaii from 24 to 28 October, 2005. Karen Meech and Bo Reipurth are co-chairs of the Local Organizing Committee. Full details will be given in next years report.

Staffing and Infrastructure

The UHNAI team welcomed several new people to the group:

  • Michele Sonoda — our new astrobiology assistant, has taken over the management of our visitor program, and our visitor apartment, Astro Hale. In addition, she is handling all group purchasing, travel and logistics for meetings and workshops.
  • Minghui Chen — is our new NAI computer support person. He has spent the spring developing a new web-driven purchasing database system that the team can use for submitting purchasing requests for review and action. This is coupled to our budget database for accurate tracking of expenses. Ming has also been developing the new web page for our group, and has been working with our publications editor to start a series of Astrobiology Research Discoveries articles and bring them online.
  • Evgenya Shokolnik — is our new NRC postdoc, and she arrived early in 2005 to work with E. Gaidos on extrasolar planets.
  • Karen Stockstill — is a new postdoc working with team members Scott Anderson and Jeff Taylor on Mars research, and is partly supported by and collaborating with our NAI group.
  • Jacqueline Keane — currently at NASA Ames, has been selected to be one of our new UH NAI postdocs, and she will be arriving during the fall 2005.

Education/Public Outreach Activities

The UH NAI has been very active in its outreach programs this year. Our formal education program included an international Astrobiology Winter School, developed by B. Reipurth and K. Meech, which hosted 39 graduate students and young researchers, and was held in Hawaii from January 10-21, 2005 on the theme of Water on Earth and in Space. Additionally, we offer several courses (Astrochemistry, an Astrobiology Seminar, Special Topics in Astrobiology through the Planetary Ecosystems & Biosystems Lab (PEBL), and an Astrobiology course through the Information and Computer Science Department).

Our EPO activities are grouped into K-14 workshops for students and teachers, public talks, involvement in the Hawaii State Science Fair, and we have hosted a traveling Astrobiology exhibit. The combined contact hours for the formal and informal education programs this year are large (17,069 hours), in part because of the Deep Impact Encounter. We are also developing a new collaborative effort with personnel at the Hawaii Volcanoes National park in partnership with the NASA Ames NAI lead team.

  • Alii Summer Teacher Workshop — The Astrobiology Laboratory Institute for Instructors is held for 1 week each summer and gives teachers hands on experience and content background in astrobiology, with the participation of a large fraction of our team.
  • Deep Impact and the Faulkes Telescope Facility — During the spring, leading up to and including our team’s participation in the Deep Impact mission, we conducted 4 teacher workshops in collaboration with teachers from Iceland and the UK, and had 4 public lectures related to the mission.
  • Deep Impact Encounter — The UHNAI team participated in 4 major activities at encounter ranging from public events at the Maui Community college (400 people), Univ. of Hawaii at Hilo (500 people), a Lecture at Sunset on the Beach (10,000 people) and activities at the Bishop museum.
figure 1
Image of the nucleus of comet 9P/Tempel one taken by the imaging targeting sensor (ITS) about 5 minutes before impact. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
figure 2
Impact of comet Tempel 1.67 seconds after impact, taken with the high resolution camera. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
figure 3
The new UH NAI website.
figure 4
The new UH NAI online purchasing database.
figure 5
Astrobiology Research Discoveries at the UHNAI.