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2008 Annual Science Report

NASA Ames Research Center Reporting  |  JUL 2007 – JUN 2008

Prebiotic Organics From Space

Project Summary

This project has three components, all aimed to better our understanding of the connection between chemistry in space and the origin of life on Earth and possibly other worlds. Our approach is to trace the formation and evolution of compounds in space, with particular emphasis on identifying those that are interesting from a prebiotic perspective, and understand their possible roles in the origin of life on habitable worlds. We do this by first measuring the spectra and chemistry of materials under simulated space conditions in the laboratory. We then use these results to interpret astronomical observations made with ground-based and orbiting telescopes. We also carry out experiments on simulated extraterrestrial materials to analyze extraterrestrial samples returned by NASA missions or that fall to Earth in as meteorites.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

We have made substantial progress in all three focus areas this year.

(1) Conversion of our world unique collection of PAH mid-IR spectra (>800) into a database is nearly complete. This is the spectral collection upon which the interstellar PAH model is based. Database/web user interface should be ready for launch March, 2009 and will revolutionize how cosmic spectra are analyzed. Three PAH related papers were published, one on NIR spectra of N-containing PAHs; one on mid-IR spectroscopy of very large PAHs; and one on IR properties of PAH ions in water ice analogs of interstellar and Solar System ices.

(2) Several papers describing reactions during the production of prebiotic compounds by UV irradiation of cosmic ices appeared in MAPS and ApJ. One described isotopic experiments showing that the production of amino acids in astrophysical ices is complex and does not follow the pathways predicted by Strecker synthesis or radical interaction models. A review of prebiotic chemical evolution was published as part of the American Chemical Society’s series on Chemical Education.

(3) Mission involvement: Scott Sandford, CoI on Stardust and member of the sample allocation subcommittee, is intimately involved with extraction, distribution, and analysis of samples from Comet 81P/Wild 2. Results were published in the January/February 2008 issue of MAPS. Cometary organics are richer in oxygen and nitrogen than meteoritic organics and also contain volatile materials not observed in meteorites. Some organics are enriched in D and 15N, implying an interstellar/presolar chemical heritage. This work was recently reviewed in the first volume of AnnRev Analytical Chemistry.

The concept of a lander/rover deployable Organic Surveyor based on UV induced Luminescence has been finalized, the necessary equipment to start this has been purchased with our 2007 NAI DDF funds and the experimental apparatus is under construction. We have also just been awarded a second Astrobiology DDF grant (PI Ehrenfreund).

    Louis Allamandola Louis Allamandola
    Max Bernstein Max Bernstein
    Andrew Mattioda Andrew Mattioda
    Scott Sandford Scott Sandford
    Charles Apel

    Charles Bauschlicher

    Nathan Bramall

    Jamie Cook

    David Deamer

    Jason Dworkin

    Murthy Gudipati

    Richard Zare

    Objective 1.1
    Models of formation and evolution of habitable planets

    Objective 2.1
    Mars exploration

    Objective 2.2
    Outer Solar System exploration

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 3.4
    Origins of cellularity and protobiological systems

    Objective 4.3
    Effects of extraterrestrial events upon the biosphere

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials

    Objective 7.2
    Biosignatures to be sought in nearby planetary systems