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2010 Annual Science Report

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Current Status and Future Bioastronomy

Project Summary

Irvine and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts have been using a unique new broadband radio receiver to measure the spectra of external galaxies in the 3mm wavelength region, and hence to study the chemistry of their interstellar gas.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

GCA Co-Investigator Prof. William M. Irvine has spent the majority of his time related to NAI as an Editor of a new Encyclopedia of Astrobiology that will be published by Springer. The Encyclopedia will contain some 1800 entries on the variety of fields which constitute astrobiology, including astronomy, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, biology, microbiology, planetary science, and history of science. Hundreds of authors have contributed entries, which range from short (~ 100 words), through medium (500 words) and long (~ 1600 words), to overviews (6000 words plus references). Each entry receives three separate reviews, from a specialist in the field, a non-specialist (to ensure readability for those outside the immediate field of the author), and the responsible editor. Irvine himself contributed some 90 entries and is responsible for those sections of the Encyclopedia dealing with astrochemistry and with stars and star formation. In addition, he has been a specialist or a non-specialist reviewer for more than 200 other entries.

GCA Co-Investigator Prof. William M. Irvine and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst completed their analysis of millimeter-wavelength spectra of galaxies taken with a unique new broadband receiver. The so-called Redshift Search Receiver (RSR) has an instantaneous bandwidth of 36 GHz, covering the frequency range from 74 to 110.5 GHz. It is ultimately intended for use on the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT; see below); however, until the LMT is completed, the receiver has been tested at the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (FCRAO’s) 14-meter telescope, operated by the University of Massachusetts. Interesting differences were found in the molecular emission from some 10 external galaxies; e.g., in the relative strength of emission lines from HCN, HNC, HCO+, CH3OH, 13CO, CS and N2H+ (a proxy for N2). Theoretical work suggests that the relevant effects include differences in both ultraviolet and X-ray environments, and in the importance of shocks. See Snell et al. (2010).

Administrative Activities Related to Astrobiology:
Irvine continued as President of the International Astronomical Union’s Commission 51, Bioastronomy. A primary responsibility is planning the next Bioastronomy Symposium, which will be held jointly with ISSOL-The International Astrobiology Society in Montpellier, France, in July 2011. This conference, Origins 2011, will be a major venue for astrobiology discussion and interaction.

In addition, Irvine has been in discussions with NAI Director Carl Pilcher and others on the desirability of forming a union or federation of astrobiology societies. Such a grouping might include Bioastronomy, ISSOL, the newly formed Astrobiology Society, and others. Further discussions are planed at the 2010 EANA meeting and at Origins 2011 next summer.

It will aid the planning of Origins 2011 that Irvine has also been elected a member of the Executive Council of ISSOL-The International Astrobiology Society.

The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) is a joint project of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica (INAOE) in Tonantzintla, Puebla, Mexico. The LMT will be the largest single-dish telescope in the world operating at short millimeter wavelengths when it is completed. It will be a powerful instrument for various fields within astrobiology, including the study of the chemistry and physics of comets and other primitive bodies in the solar system, planetary and satellite atmospheres, and organic molecules in the interstellar medium of the Milky Way and other galaxies. Irvine continues as a member of the Science Working Group for LMT. In addition, he is a Special Assistant to the Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with responsibility for promoting closer cooperation between the US and Mexican teams working on the project. Irvine will insure that astrobiological research opportunities for the telescope are appreciated and taken into account in plans for instrumentation and operation.
At this time early commissioning activities are beginning at the telescope. These include setting the surface with the aid of holography, tuning the active surface for gravitational and thermal effects, determining the telescope pointing, implementing the full servo-system, integrating the instruments into the system, and initial astronomical observations in 2011 with the inner 30m of the dish.

Displays about the LMT continue to be presented at the annual fall fair in Cuidad Cerdan, a city about 18 km from the base of the mountain where the LMT is cited in Mexico.

Publications supported in part by NAIGCA Funding:

Research Papers:

Snell, R.L., Narayanan, G., Yun, M., Heyer, M., Chung, A.. Irvine, W.M., and Erickson, N. (2010) “The Red Shift Search Receiver 3mm Wavelength Spectral Scans of Ten Nearby Galaxies”, AJ, in press.

Scott, K. et al. (2010). “Deep 1.1mm-wavelength imaging of the GOODS-South field by AzTEC/ASTE. I. Source catalog and number counts,” MNRAS , 405, 2260-2278.

Other Publications:

Irvine, W.M. (2010) “Preface”, in Origins and evolution of life: an astrobiological perspective, ed. M. Gargaud, P. Lopez-Garcia and H. Martin, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK), in press.

Gargaud, M., Irvine, W. M., et al. Eds. (2011), Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Springer-Verlag, in preparation.

    William Irvine
    Project Investigator
    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 2.2
    Outer Solar System exploration

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts