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2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 2.1 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity

    This project seeks to improve 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 development of chemical complexity in space, with particular emphasis on understanding the evolution from simple to complex species focusing on those that are interesting from a biogenic perspective and also understanding 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 meteorites.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.4 4.3 7.1 7.2
  • Coupled Evolution of Mars’ Surface Water and Interior

    The delivery and availability of water on the Martian surface depends on the coupled evolution of the Martian interior and atmosphere. We developed models for the history of volcanism on Mars. We also determined the conditions under which the location of the Martian spin axis remains stable. We find that some true polar wander — motion of the spin axis — may have occurred, but not enough to explain the observed deformation of hypothesized shorelines that circumscribed a large paleo-ocean.

  • AbGradCon 2009

    The Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference (AbGradCon) was held on the UW campus July 17 – 20 2009. AbGradCon supports NAI’s mission to carry out, support and catalyze collaborative, interdisciplinary research, train the next generation of astrobiology researchers, provide scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions, and explore new approaches using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research amongst widely-distributed investigators. This was done through a diverse range of activities, ranging from formal talks and poster sessions to free time for collaboration-enabling discussions, social activities, web 2.0 conference extensions, public outreach and grant writing simulations.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Astrobiology of Icy Worlds

    Icy worlds such as Titan, Europa, Enceladus, and others may harbor the greatest volume of habitable space in the Solar System. For at least five of these worlds, considerable evidence exists to support the conclusion that oceans or seas may lie beneath the icy surfaces. The total liquid water reservoir within these worlds may be some 30 to 40 times the volume of liquid water on Earth. This vast quantity of liquid water raises two questions: Can life emerge and thrive in such cold, lightless oceans beneath many kilometers of ice? And if so, do the icy shells hold clues to life in the subsurface? We will address these questions through four major investigations namely, the habitability, survivability, and detectability of life of icy worlds coupled with “Path to Flight” Technology demonstration. We will also use a wealth of existing age-appropriate educational resources to convey concepts of astrobiology, spectroscopy, and remote sensing; develop standards-based, hands-on activities to extend the application of these resources to the search for life on icy worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 5.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Astrobiological Exploration of Mars

    NASA spacecraft have discovered both chemical and physical evidence that liquid water once flowed on the martian surface. Close examination of the images and spectroscopic data from these spacecraft, and understanding what they tell us, are critical to selecting the best sites for future rover missions. This project aims to maximise the knowledge gained from orbiting and landed spacecraft and apply it effectively in future planning and execution of new missions.

    The key questions for astrobiology are not so much “was water present?” as “what were its properties?” and “How long did it persist?” Using thermodynamic calculations, one can approach both questions, using mineral identifications made by the MER rovers and CRISM. We find that waters at Gusev and Meridiani planum grew extremely salty as evaporation proceeded, reaching conditions that would challenge known life on Earth. We also learn that in a number of places on the martian surface, minerals deposited billions of years ago as a result of water-rock interactions have seen little or no water since that time.

  • AIRFrame Technical Infrastructure and Visualization Software Evaluation

    To create visualizations of interdisciplinary relationships in the field of astrobiology, this component of the AIRFrame project involves creating a data model for source documents, a database structure, and evaluating off-the-shelf visualization software for possible application to the final project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Advancing Methods for the Analyses of Organics Molecules in Microbial Ecosystems

    Eigenbrode’s GCA work over the past year has largely focused on advancing protocols for the extraction and analysis of complex organics molecules in iron-oxide rich samples regarded as analogs to groundwater seeps and ancient surface water environments on Mars and ancient Earth. Eigenbrode has succeeded with some advance in methods for organic extraction and analysis for samples that include iron seep sediments, cultured iron bacteria, and terrace sediments of the Rio Tinto. In addition, Eigenbrode has been part of a successful study aimed at understanding microbial metabolisms and ecological evolution of Neoarchean using Fe, S, and C isotopic records.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 7.1
  • Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings

    This project looks at the evolution of the composition of gases in the cold disk from which planets form; the evolution of the atmosphere after planet formation, in particular, the role of trace gases in the early greenhouse effect; and, some aspects of the the formation and later dynamical evolution of extrasolar planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.1
  • Disks and the Origins of Planetary Systems

    This task is concerned with understanding the evolution of complexity as primitive planetary bodies form in habitable zones. The planet formation process begins with fragmentation of large molecular clouds into flattened protoplanetary disks. This disk is in many ways an astrochemical “primeval soup” in which cosmically abundant elements are assembled into increasingly complex hydrocarbons and mixed in the dust and gas envelope within the disk. Gravitational attraction among the myriad small bodies leads to planet formation. If the newly formed planet is a suitable distance from its star to support liquid water at its surface, it lies within the so-called “habitable zone.” The goal of this project is to understand the formation process and identification of such life-supporting bodies.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3
  • Advancing Techniques for in Situ of Complex Organics

    During this year we continued developing techniques and protocols for laser time-of-flight mass spectrometry (TOF-MS) analysis of complex organic molecules and trace elements, which would be of importance on missions to Mars, Titan, comets, and other planetary bodies, where resources for chemical sample manipulation, preparation, and processing are limited. We upgraded the solid sampling and optical configurations for our “Tower TOF” prototype and used the system to further develop peak pattern libraries for Mars and cometary analogs in comparison with other instrument techniques. We examined the effects of sample preparation on fragmentation patterns of benzene di-, tri-, and hexa-carboxylic acid standards, finding that often simpler approaches can yield more reliable results. We also worked toward a new laser pyrolysis-based experiment for analysis of neutral gas from solid samples.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 7.1
  • Developing New Biosignatures

    The development and experimental testing of potential indicators of life is essential for providing a critical scientific basis for the exploration of life in the cosmos. In microbial cultures, potential new biosignatures can be found among isotopic ratios, elemental compositions, and chemical changes to the growth media. Additionally, life can be detected and investigated in natural systems by directing cutting-edge instrumentation towards the investigation of microbial cells, microbial fossils, and microbial geochemical products. Over the next five years, we will combine our geomicrobiological expertise and on-going field-based environmental investigations with a new generation of instruments capable of revealing diagnostic biosignatures. Our efforts will focus on creating innovative approaches for the analyses of cells and other organic material, finding ways in which metal abundances and isotope systems reflect life, and developing creative approaches for using environmental DNA to study present and past life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.4 4.1 5.2 5.3 7.1 7.2
  • Development of Laser Ablation-Electron Impact Ionization-Miniature Mass Spectrometer (LA-EI-MMS) for In-Situ Chemical and Isotopic Measurements of Martian Rocks

    Our goal is to develop instrumentation capable of being deployed on a lander style space craft that can measure the chemical and isotopic composition of Martian samples. The instrumentation is based on the technologies of (i) laser ablation (LA) sampling of minerals, (ii) electron-impact ionization (EI) of ablated neutrals, and (iii) mass spectral measurement using JPL-developed miniature mass spectrometer (MMS) of focal plane geometry with modified-CCD array detector.

  • Bioastronomy 2007 Meeting Proceedings

    The 9th International Bioastronomy coneference: Molecules, Microbes and Extraterrestrial Life was organized by Commission 51 (Bioastronomy) of the International Astronomical Union, and by the UH NASA Astrobiology team. The meeting was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico from 16-20 July 2007. During the reporting period the Proceedings were finalized and will have a publication date of 2009.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Mineralogical Traces of Early Habitable Environments

    The goal of our work is to discern the habitability (potential to support life) of ancient Martian environments, with an emphasis on understanding which environments could have supported life more abundantly than others. This information will help to guide the selection of sites on the Martian surface, for future missions designed to seek direct evidence of life. Our approach has two main parts: 1. We will use the presence of specific minerals or groups of minerals – an analysis that can be performed robotically on Mars — to constrain the chemical and physical conditions of the ancient environments in which they formed. 2. We will work to understand how the ability of environments on Earth to support more or less biomass depends on these same physical and chemical conditions.

  • Project 5: Vistas of Early Mars: In Preparation for Sample Return

    To understand the history of life in the solar system requires knowledge of how hydrous minerals form on planetary surfaces, and the role these minerals play in the development of potential life forms. One hydrous mineral found on Earth and inferred from in situ measurements on Mars, is the mineral Jarosite, KFe3(SO4)2(OH)6. We are investigating whether radiometric ages, specifically 40Ar/39Ar ages on jarosite can be interpreted to accurately record climate change events on Mars. This project not only requires understanding the conditions required for jarosite formation and preservation on planetary surfaces, but also assessing under what conditions its “radiometric clock” can be reset (e.g., during changes in environmental conditions such as temperature). By studying jarosites formed by a variety of processes on Earth, we will be prepared to analyze and properly interpret ages measured from jarosite obtained from future Mars sample return missions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 7.1
  • CASS Planning

    The computational astrobiology summer school (CASS) is a two week program, followed by a semester of mentored independent work, which has the following goals:

    - To introduce computer science and engineering (CS&E) graduate students to the field of astrobiology, – To introduce astrobiologists to the tools and techniques that current methods in CS&E can provide, and – To encourage interdisciplinary projects that will result in advances in astrobiology.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Hydrodynamic Escape From Planetary Atmospheres

    We use computer models to simulate the behavior of the upper atmospheres of different planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, Earth-like exoplanets, etc.) during their early evolutionary stages. Young stars produce more flares and other stellar activity than older stars, and the young Sun emitted a greater amount of energetic photons than it does today, which heated the upper atmospheres of the planets. This atmospheric heating led to fast atmosphere escape, which probably controlled the atmospheric composition of early planets. The atmospheric composition on early Earth provides critical constraints on the origin and early evolution of life on this planet. The atmospheric composition of other planets provide important constraints on their habitability.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 3.1
  • Iron Isotope Biosignatures: Laboratory Studies and Modern Environments

    The isotopic fingerprints of biological carbon and sulfur cycling in modern and ancient marine environments is well established by research over several decades, but, until recently, potential iron isotope fingerprints of microbial iron cycling in the ancient Earth have not been pursued. Next to carbon, iron was probably the most important element cycled by early life, given the high abundance of iron in early Earth environments and the energy gains that may be obtained by microbes during iron redox changes. Our new laboratory studies moved away from simple systems to those more analogous to nature, and we demonstrated that iron isotope fractionations can be produced by biological cycling in complex systems. Moreover, in a field study, we isolated natural iron cycling microbes and demonstrated that the iron isotope fractionations produced by natural microbial ecosystems are the same as those produced by pure strains in the laboratory; these are key components to confidently applying Fe isotopes as a biosignature for ancient life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 5.2 6.1 7.1 7.2
  • Limits of Habitability

    The study of planetary habitability necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. The factors that can affect the habitability of planetary environments are numerous, and the disciplines that can contribute to their investigation and interpretation include, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy to name a few.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3 6.2
  • Laser Ablation-Electron Impact Ionization-Miniature Mass Spectrometer (LA-EI-MMS) for In-Situ Geochronology and Hydrology of Martian Rocks

    Geochronologic investigations of Mars have focused exclusively on Martian meteorites and crater counting the Martian surface to infer relative ages of different Martian surfaces. Our goal is to develop geochronologic methods that can be applied using a miniature mass spectrometer capable of being deployed on a Mars rover to perform chemical and Rb-Sr isotope analysis on samples collected from the Martian surface. In parallel with instrument development we are conducting terrestrial studies of Martian analog materials and SNC meteorites to develop standards for the miniature mass spectrometer and methodologies for interpretation of data that may be collected using this miniature mass spectrometer.

  • Subglacial Methanogenesis and Its Role in Planetary Carbon Cycling

    Methanogens are thought to be among the earliest emerging life forms. Today, the distribution of methanogens is narrowly constrained, due in part to the energetics of the reactions which support this functional class of organism (namely carbon dioxide reduction with hydrogen and acetate fermentation). Methanogens utilize a number of metalloenzymes that have active site clusters comprised of a unique array of metals. The goals of this project are 1) identifying a suite of biomarkers indicative of biological CH4 production 2). quantifying the flux of CH~4~ from sub-ice systems and 3). developing an understanding how life thrives at the thermodynamic limits of life. This project represents a unique extension of the ABRC and bridges the research goals of several nodes, namely the JPL-Icy Worlds team and the ASU-Follow the Elements team.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Habitability of Water-Rich Environments, Task 1: Improve and Test Codes to Model Water-Rock Interactions

    Many potentially habitable water-rich environments are not directly observable. These include ancient fluids on Mars, the subsurface oceans on Europa and other icy bodies, and the oceans of postulated extrasolar planets. Computer models are required to simulate the chemical compositions of these environments. In this task we are improving the computer codes used to model water-rock interactions.

  • Microbial Pyrite Oxidation in Nature and the Lab: Sulfate Mineral Biosignature Investigation

    Deposits of minerals containing the chemical species sulfate, a constituent of ocean water, have been identified on the surface of Mars. Although there might be other methods for its formation, the process we are investigating is one that occurs on Earth and is the result of the metabolic activity of microbes, which oxidize the iron sulfide mineral pyrite (Fool’s Gold) to form sulfate. We have made the oxygen in water in a bacterial culture medium traceable by addition of a non-radioactive isotopic tracer and can thus differentiate oxygen from the atmosphere, used by biological processes, from oxygen in water, used by the non-biological processes. Our new data and approaches defy conventional wisdom, and offer a novel way for investigating the origin of sulfates on Mars by in situ instruments.

  • New Frontiers in Micro-Analysis of Isotopic Compositions of Natural Materials: Development of Fe Isotopes

    We are developing micro-analytical techniques to perform in situ Fe isotope analysis of Fe-bearing minerals by ion microprobe and laser ablation mass spectrometry. Iron isotope compositions are important signatures in tracking redox processes, chemical weathering, and dissimilatory iron reduction by bacteria. In situ micro analysis procedures will allow us to better apply the Fe isotope system by allowing one to determine Fe isotope compositions within a petrographic framework, minimize sample requirements, evaluate microscale heterogeneity, and inter-mineral isotopic equilibrium. Such in situ procedures are critical for analysis of samples that may be returned from future space missions or for analysis by instruments that can be deployed on space craft.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 7.1 7.2
  • Habitability of Water-Rich Environments, Task 4: Evaluate the Habitability of Ancient Aqueous Solutions on Mars

    We aim to reconstruct the compositions of ancient fluids on Mars by combining computational models with data on the mineralogy of Mars surface materials as they are preserved today. This effort requires that we better understand how well the types of data obtained today and in future missions reflects the mineralogy that exists today. In this task, we have begun to collect such data at Yellowstone National Park, an analog for possible hydrothermal sites on Mars, and have advanced the use of thermodynamic models to interpret observed mineralogical assemblages.

  • Stellar Effects on Planetary Habitability

    Habitable environments are most likely to exist in close proximity to a star, and hence a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the effect of the star on planetary habitability is crucial in the pursuit of an inhabited world. We model how stars with different masses, temperatures and flare activity affect the habitability of planets. We also address the effect that tides between a star and a planet have on planetary habitability, including the power to turn potentially habitable planets like Earth into extremely volcanically active bodies like Io.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 4.3 5.3 6.1 7.2
  • Qualitative Analysis of Soils Samples Using Solid Phase Microextraction (SPME) and Gas Chromatography/mass Spectrometry (GC/MS)

    The investigation of the physical and chemical properties of Mars soil analogues collected in arid deserts provide limits to exobiological models, evidence on the effects of subsurface mineral matrices, support current and planned space missions, and address planetary protection issues. We have collected samples in the Atacama desert and applied Solid Phase Micro-Extraction (SPME) to optimize the extraction of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are among the most abundant molecules found in various space environments in the solar system and beyond. SPME is a solvent-free extraction method invented and applied in a variety of sampling-detection scenarios. The aim of this study is to use SPME for fast screening and determination of PAHs in soil samples. This method minimizes sample handling and preserves chemical integrity of the sample. When compared to traditional extraction methods SPME may provide better analyte recoveries, less opportunity for rearrangement and decomposition of analytes, and faster analysis. This study and further optimization of this extraction technique provides important data for the calibration and performance of future Mars instrumentation that specializes on the detection of organic molecules.

  • Understanding Past Earth Environments

    This project examines the evolution of the Earth over time. This year we examined and expanded the geological record of Earth’s history, and ran models to help interpret those data. Models were also used to simulate what the early Earth would look like if viewed remotely through a telescope similar to NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder mission concept. We focused our efforts on the Earth as it existed in prior to and during the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.4 billion years ago, as this was one of the most dramatic and important events in the evolution of the Earth and its inhabitants.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Understanding the Early Mars Environment

    The surface of Mars today is a cold dry desert on which liquid water cannot exist. Evidence from rovers and orbiters indicate that liquid water may have existed on the surface of Mars in the distant past. This project aims to understand how it could have been warm enough for liquid water by creating computer models of the ancient Mars surface, atmosphere, and climate, and comparing the results with the available data. In a nutshell, we are trying to warm up a computer version of Mars, which is not as easy as it sounds.

  • Keck Astrochemistry Laboratory

    The overall goal of this project is to comprehend the chemical evolution of the Solar System. This will be achieved through an understanding of the formation of carbon-, hydrogen-, oxygen-, and nitrogen-bearing (CHON) molecules in ices of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) by reproducing the space environment in a specially designed experimental setup. KBOs are small planetary bodies orbiting the sun beyond the planet Neptune, which are considered as the most primitive objects in the Solar System. A study of KBOs is important because they resemble natural ‘time capsules’ at a frozen stage before life developed on Earth. Our methodology is based on a comparison of the molecules formed in the experiments with the current composition of KBOs; such approach provides an exceptional potential to reconstruct the composition of icy Solar System bodies at the time of their formation billions of years ago. The significance of this project is that our studies elucidate the origin of biologically relevant molecules and help unravel the chemical evolution of the Solar System. Since KBOs are believed to be the main reservoir of short-period comets, which are considered as ‘delivery systems’ of biologically important molecules to the early Earth, our project also brings us closer to the understanding of how life might have emerged on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • Mars Bulk Composition

    The bulk composition of Mars, including its total inventory of water, is central to understanding how planets form and to fully understanding the role of water in Martian geological evolution.

  • Planning for Analogue Environment Deployments With the Canadian Space Agency

    Kim Binsted is on secondment at the Canadian Space Agency, working on an analogue deployment to a site on the slopes of Mauna Kea for Jan/Feb 2010.

  • Quantification of the Disciplinary Roots of Astrobiology

    The questions of astrobiology span many scientific fields. This project analyzes databases of scientific literature to determine and quantify the diverse disciplinary roots of astrobiology. This is one component of a wider study to build a map of relationships between the constituent fields of astrobiology, so relevant knowledge in diverse fields can be most efficiently inform the study of life in the universe.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2