2011 Annual Science Report
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting | SEP 2010 – AUG 2011
Our NAI scientists are members of the New York Center for Astrobiology (NYCA; http://www.origins.rpi.edu/), based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in partnership with the University at Albany, Syracuse University, the University of Arizona, and the University of North Dakota. Our team joined the NAI in Spring 2009, following the selection of our CAN5 proposal “Setting the stage for life: From interstellar clouds to early Earth and Mars”. Our research is devoted to elucidating the origins of both life itself and of habitable planetary environments, in our own Solar System and in planet-forming regions around other stars: our long-term goal is to develop realistic, widely applicable models for the emergence of molecular complexity leading to life. This is being accomplished through a synergy of interdisciplinary research that unifies astronomical observations, laboratory experiments and computational modeling.
Our team is also fully committed ... Continue reading.
NAI, ASTEP, ASTID, Exobiology
TEAM Active Dates:2/2009 - 1/2015 CAN 5
Members:52 (See All)
- Visit Team Page
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
Project 9: Microenvironmental Influences on Prebiotic Synthesis
Before biotic, i.e., “biologically-derived” pathways for the formation of essential biological molecules such as RNA, DNA and proteins could commence, prebiotic pathways were needed to form the molecules that were the basis for the earliest life. Much research has been done on possible non-biological routes to synthesis of RNA, thought by many to be the best candidate or model for the emergence of life. Our work focuses on possible physicochemical microenvironments on early earth that could have influenced and even directed or templated the formation of RNA or its predecessors.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
Project 7: Prebiotic Chemical Catalysis on Early Earth and Mars
The “RNA World” hypothesis is the current paradigm for the origins of terrestrial life. Our research is aimed at testing a key component of this paradigm: the efficiency with which RNA molecules form and grow under realistic conditions. We are studying abiotic production and polymerization of RNA by catalysis on montmorillonite clays. The catalytic efficiency of different montmorillonites are determined and compared, with the goal of determining which properties distinguish good catalysts from poor catalysts. We are also investigating the origin of montmorillonites, to test their probable availability on the early Earth and Mars, and the nature of catalytic activity that could have led to chiral selectivity on Earth.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
Project 6: The Environment of the Early Earth
This project involves the development of capabilities that will allow scientists to obtain information about the conditions on early Earth (3.0 to 4.5 billion years ago) by performing chemical analyzes of crystals (minerals) that have survived since that time. When they grow, minerals incorporate trace concentrations of ions and gaseous molecules from the local environment. We are conducting experiments to calibrate the uptake of these “impurities” that we expect to serve as indicators of temperature, moisture, oxidation state and atmosphere composition. To date, our focus has been mainly on zircon (ZrSiO4), but we have recently turned our attention to quartz as well.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 4.1 4.3
Project 3: Pathways for Exogenous Organic Matter to the Early Earth and Mars
This project focuses on investigating the asteroidal contribution of organic molecules to the terrestrial planets in the early Solar System – molecules that may have contributed to the rise of life on Earth and potentially on Mars. Some types of meteorites contain significant amounts of organic compounds, including amino acids. These compounds are presumed to have formed by non-biological processes, either in the solar nebula (with subsequent incorporation into asteroids during their formation), or within the asteroids themselves by liquid water acting on the original minerals. Fragments from asteroids arrive at the Earth (and Mars) at comparably low velocities and can efficiently deliver intact organic molecules to the surfaces of these planets.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
Project 2: Processing of Precometary Ices in the Early Solar System
The discovery of numerous planetary systems still in the process of formation gives us a unique opportunity to glimpse how our own solar system may have formed 4.6 billion years ago. Our goal is to test the hypothesis that the building blocks of life were synthesized in space and delivered to the early Earth by comets and asteroids. We use computers to simulate shock waves and other processes that energize the gas and dust in proto-planetary disks and drive physical and chemical processes that would not otherwise occur. Our work seeks specifically to determine (i) whether asteroids and comets were heated to temperatures that favor prebiotic chemistry; and (ii) whether the requisite heating mechanisms operate in other planetary systems forming today.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
Project 1: Interstellar Origins of Preplanetary Matter
Interstellar space is rich in the raw materials required to build planets and life, including essential chemical elements (H, C, N, O, Mg, Si, Fe, etc.) and compounds (water, organic molecules, planet-building minerals). This research project aims to characterize the composition and structure of these materials and the chemical pathways by which they form and evolve. The long-term goal is to determine the inventories of proto-planetary disks around young sun-like stars, leading to a clear understanding of the processes that led to our own origins and insight into the probability of life-supporting environments emerging around other stars.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1
Project 4: Impact History in the Earth-Moon System
The influx of interplanetary debris onto the early Earth represents a major hazard to the emergence of life. Large crater-forming bodies must have been common in the early solar system, as craters are seen on all ancient solid surfaces from Mercury to the moons of the outer planets. Impact craters are few in number on the Earth today only because geologic activity and erosion gradually erase them. The Earth’s nearest neighbor, the Moon, lacks an atmosphere and significant tectonic activity, and therefore retains a record of past impacts. The goal of our research is to reconstruct the bombardment history of the Moon, and by proxy the Earth, to establish when the flux of sterilizing impacts declined sufficiently for the Earth to became habitable.ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.3
Project 8: Survival of Sugars in Ice/Mineral Mixtures on High Velocity Impact
Understanding the delivery and preservation of organic molecules in meteoritic material is important to understanding the origin of life on Earth. Though we know that organic molecules are abundant in meteorites, comets, and interplanetary dust particles, few studies have examined how impact processes affect their chemistry and survivability under extreme temperatures and pressures. We are investigating how impact events may change the structure of simple sugars, both alone and when combined with ice mixtures. The experiments will allow us to understand how sugar chemistry is affected by high pressure events and to contrast the survival probabilities of sugars in meteorite and comet impacts. This will lead to a better understanding of how organic molecules are affected during their delivery to Earth. This project leverages expertise in two different NAI nodes, increasing the collaborative interaction among the NAI investigatorsROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 4.1 4.3
Education & Public Outreach
Acharyya, K., Hassel, G. E., & Herbst, E. (2011). THE EFFECTS OF GRAIN SIZE AND GRAIN GROWTH ON THE CHEMICAL EVOLUTION OF COLD DENSE CLOUDS. The Astrophysical Journal, 732(2), 73. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/732/2/73
Cassidy, L. M., Dong, Y., Joshi, P. C., Aldersley, M. F., Ferris, J. P., & McGown, L. B. (2011). Signal Enhancement of Abiotically-Synthesized RNA Oligonucleotides and other Biopolymers using Unmodified Fused Silica in MALDI-MS. Journal of The American Society for Mass Spectrometry, 22(6), 1100–1104. doi:10.1007/s13361-011-0113-0
Chiar, J. E., Pendleton, Y. J., Allamandola, L. J., Boogert, A. C. A., Ennico, K., Greene, T. P., … Eriksson, K. (2011). ICES IN THE QUIESCENT IC 5146 DENSE CLOUD. The Astrophysical Journal, 731(1), 9. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/731/1/9
Cook, A. M., Whittet, D. C. B., Shenoy, S. S., Gerakines, P. A., White, D. W., & Chiar, J. E. (2011). THE THERMAL EVOLUTION OF ICES IN THE ENVIRONMENTS OF NEWLY FORMED STARS: THE CO 2 DIAGNOSTIC. The Astrophysical Journal, 730(2), 124. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/730/2/124
Fieber-Beyer, S. K., & Gaffey, M. J. (2011). Near-infrared spectroscopy of 3:1 Kirkwood Gap Asteroids: (3760) Poutanen and (974) Lioba. Icarus, 214(2), 645–651. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2011.06.014
Fieber-Beyer, S. K., Gaffey, M. J., & Abell, P. A. (2011). Mineralogical characterization of near-Earth Asteroid (1036) Ganymed. Icarus, 212(1), 149–157. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2010.12.013
Fieber-Beyer, S. K., Gaffey, M. J., Kelley, M. S., Reddy, V., Reynolds, C. M., & Hicks, T. (2011). The Maria asteroid family: Genetic relationships and a plausible source of mesosiderites near the 3:1 Kirkwood Gap. Icarus, 213(2), 524–537. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2011.03.009
Joshi, P. C., Aldersley, M. F., & Ferris, J. P. (2010). Homochiral Selectivity in RNA Synthesis: Montmorillonite-catalyzed Quaternary Reactions of D, L-Purine with D, L- Pyrimidine Nucleotides. Orig Life Evol Biosph, 41(3), 213–236. doi:10.1007/s11084-010-9222-1
Joshi, P. C., Aldersley, M. F., & Ferris, J. P. (2011). Progress in demonstrating total homochiral selection in montmorillonite-catalyzed RNA synthesis. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, 413(4), 594–598. doi:10.1016/j.bbrc.2011.09.008
Joshi, P. C., Aldersley, M. F., Delano, J. W., & Ferris, J. P. (2009). Mechanism of Montmorillonite Catalysis in the Formation of RNA Oligomers. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 131(37), 13369–13374. doi:10.1021/ja9036516
Kula, J., & Baldwin, S. L. (2011). Jarosite, argon diffusion, and dating aqueous mineralization on Earth and Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 310(3-4), 314–318. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2011.08.006
Laas, J. C., Garrod, R. T., Herbst, E., & Widicus Weaver, S. L. (2011). CONTRIBUTIONS FROM GRAIN SURFACE AND GAS PHASE CHEMISTRY TO THE FORMATION OF METHYL FORMATE AND ITS STRUCTURAL ISOMERS. The Astrophysical Journal, 728(1), 71. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/728/1/71
Mouschovias, T. C., Ciolek, G. E., & Morton, S. A. (2011). Hydromagnetic waves in weakly-ionized media – I. Basic theory, and application to interstellar molecular clouds. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 415(2), 1751–1782. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2011.18817.x
Quan, D., Herbst, E., Osamura, Y., & Roueff, E. (2010). GAS-GRAIN MODELING OF ISOCYANIC ACID (HNCO), CYANIC ACID (HOCN), FULMINIC ACID (HCNO), AND ISOFULMINIC ACID (HONC) IN ASSORTED INTERSTELLAR ENVIRONMENTS. The Astrophysical Journal, 725(2), 2101–2109. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/725/2/2101
Reddy, V., Carvano, J. M., Lazzaro, D., Michtchenko, T. A., Gaffey, M. J., Kelley, M. S., … Ryan, E. L. (2011). Mineralogical characterization of Baptistina Asteroid Family: Implications for K/T impactor source. Icarus, 216(1), 184–197. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2011.08.027
Trail, D., Thomas, J. B., & Watson, E. B. (2010). The incorporation of hydroxyl into zircon. American Mineralogist, 96(1), 60–67. doi:10.2138/am.2011.3506
Trail, D., Watson, E. B., & Tailby, N. D. (2011). The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere. Nature, 480(7375), 79–82. doi:10.1038/nature10655
Whittet, D. C. B., Cook, A. M., Herbst, E., Chiar, J. E., & Shenoy, S. S. (2011). OBSERVATIONAL CONSTRAINTS ON METHANOL PRODUCTION IN INTERSTELLAR AND PREPLANETARY ICES. The Astrophysical Journal, 742(1), 28. doi:10.1088/0004-637x/742/1/28
- Aldersley, M.F. (2011). Catalysis of an exclusive RNA Dimer Synthesis by Montmorillonite. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Aldersley, M.F. (2011). The Role of Montmorillonite in its Catalysis of RNA Synthesis. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Aldersley, M.F., Bamburak, J.D., Joshi, P.C., Thompson, J., Delano, J.W. & Ferris, J.P. (2011, In Press). GS-X12 Evaluation of Manitoba Bentonites in the catalysis of RNA synthesis by montmorillonite, Manitoba Innovation, Energy and Mines 2011, Manitoba Geological Survey, Report of Activities.
- Burcar, B., Cassidy, L. & McGown, L.B. (2011). RNA Polymerization Using Catalytic Montmorillonite With Incorporated Amino Acids. AbGradCon 2011. Bozeman, MT.
- Ciolek, G.E. & Roberge, W.G. (2011). Hydromagnetic Signal Speeds In Weakly Ionized, Dusty Interstellar Clouds Having A Spectrum Of Grain Radii. Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 43(251.01).
- Delano, J.W., Zellner, N.E.B. & Swindle, T.D. (2010). Lunar Impact Glasses and Biomolecular Clocks. Annual Meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. Washington, DC.
- Ferris, J.P. (2011). Progress in Studies on the RNA World. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Gaffey, M.J. (2011). Mineralogy of Asteroids. XV Special Courses at the National Observatory. Rio de Janeiro.
- Gibb, E.L. (2011). Searching for prebiotically important molecules in protoplanetary disks. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Hardegree-Ullman, Emily, E., Horne, D., Whittet, D., Harju, J., Spizuco, J. & Mayeur, P. (2011). C18O and N2H+ Gas Phase Observations Toward Rossano Cloud B in the Corona Australis Molecular Cloud Complex. Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 43(129.11).
- Josh, P.C. (2011). Progress Towards Total Homochirality in Prebiotic Synthesis. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Katz, M.P., Ciolek, G.E. & Roberge, W.G. (2011). Driven Hydromagnetic Waves and Shocks in Dusty Interstellar Clouds. Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 43(251.03).
- Kula, J. & Baldwin, S.L. (2011). On the application of jarosite and hematite thermochronology to assess aqueous environments on Mars. Mineralogical Magazine (75): 1250
- Kula, J., Kraus, M.J., Brock-Hon, A.L. & Baldwin, S.L. (2011). Neogene drainage rates in the Bighorn Basin from jarosite 40Ar/39Ar chronometry, a hydrologic analog for Meridiani Planum, Mars. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, 43: 675.
- McCaffrey, V.P., Zellner, N.E.B., Bennett, E. & Waun, C. (2011). Assessing the Survival of Simple Sugars After High Velocity Impact. 11th Australian Space Science Conference. Canberra, ACT, Australia.
- McGown, L.B. (2011). Sequence: A new dimension in rapid metagenomic profiling. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Menzel, R.L. & Roberge, W.G. (2011). Induction Heating of Planetesimals in Protoplanetary Disks. Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 43(339.07).
- Mojzsis, S.J., Cates, N.L., Maier, A.C., Hopkins, M., Trail, D., Guitreau, M., Abramov, O. & Bleeker, W. (2011). The ca. 4.2-3.7 Ga History of the Acasta Gneiss Complex (Northwest Territories, Canada). Goldschmidt Conference.
- Roberge, W.G. & Ciolek, G.E. (2011). Magnetic Fields, Stars, and Planetary Systems Formation. Encyclopedia of Astrobiology. Vol. 13.
- Roberge, W.G. & Menzel, R.L. (2011, In Preparation). Electrodynamic Heating of Primitive Solar System Bodies. ApJ.
- Shenoy, S.S., Whittet, D.C.B., Pendleton, Y.J., Boersma, C., Allamandola, L.J., Horne, D. & Mayeur, P.A. (2011). A Spitzer Survey of an Isolated Globule: DC314.8-5.1. Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 43(321.06).
- Shenoy, S.S., Whittet, D.C.B., Pendleton, Y.J., Boersma, C., Allamandola, L.J., Horne, D. & Mayeur, P.A. (2011). A Spitzer Survey of an Isolated Globule: DC314.8-5.1. The Molecular Universe, Proceedings of the 280th Symposium of the International Astronomical Union. Toledo, Spain.
- Tailby, N., Trail, D., Cates, N.L., Mojzsis, S.J., Bell, E.A., Harrison, T.M. & Watson, E.B. (2011). Direct measurement of Ce3+/Ce4+ and Eu2+/Eu3+ in Hadean zircons by XANES. Goldschmidt Conference.
- Tailby, N., Trail, D., Cates, N.L., Mojzsis, S.J., Bell, E.A., Harrison, T.M. & Watson, E.B. (2011, In Preparation). Direct measurement of Ce and Eu valence in Hadean zircons by XANES.
- Trail, D., Watson, E.B. & And Tailby, N.D. (In Preparation). Ce and Eu anomalies in zircon as proxies for the oxidation state of magmas.
- Trail, D., Watson, E.B. & Tailby, N. (2010). New experimental constraints for Hadean zircon source melts from Ce and Eu anomalies in zircon. American Geophysical Union.
- Trail, D., Watson, E.B. & Tailby, N. (2011). The oxidation state of Hadean melts and implications for the composition of Earth’s early atmosphere. Goldschmidt Conference.
- Watson, E.B., Mueller, T., Trail, D., Van Orman, J.A. & Papineau, D. (2011). C Diffusion in Fe: isotope effects and other complexities. American Geophysical Union.
- Whittet, D.C.B. (2011). Interstellar Dust. In: Springer-Verlag (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Astrobiology.
- Whittet, D.C.B. (2011). Interstellar Ices. In: Springer-Verlag (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Astrobiology.
- Whittet, D.C.B. (2011). The origin and distribution of interstellar methanol ice: The route to complex organic molecules in preplanetary matter. Origins 2011 conference. Montpellier, France.
- Zellner, N.E.B. & Gombosi, D. (2011). How Significant are the Recent Lunar Impact Events? 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
- Zellner, N.E.B., Delano, J.W. & Swindle, T.D. (2010). Lunar Regoliths: Solving Geochemical Mysteries Using Lunar Impact Glasses. American Geophysical Union, #P53A-1500.
- Zellner, N.E.B., McCaffrey, V.P., Bennett, E. & Gudipati, M. (2011). Chemistry and Astrochemistry of Simple Sugars: Implications for Asteroid, Meteorite, or Comet Delivery,. Origins 2011 International Conference. Montpellier, France.
- Zellner, N.E.B., McCaffrey, V.P., Bennett, E. & Gudipati, M. (2011). Chemistry and Astrochemistry of Simple Sugars: Implications for Asteroid, Meteorite, or Comet Delivery. 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Arizona State University
Carnegie Institution of Washington
Georgia Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Montana State University
NASA Ames Research Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Icy Worlds
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Titan
Pennsylvania State University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
University of Hawaii, Manoa
University of Wisconsin
VPL at University of Washington