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2012 Annual Science Report

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

Astrobiology/Bioastronomy Through the International Astronomical Union, the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, and Using the Large Millimeter Telescope for Astrobiological Observations

Project Summary

Irvine and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts have begun commissioning the Large Millimeter Telescope, the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world operating at short millimeter wavelengths, and are planning observations of organic molecules in comets.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

GCA Co-Investigator Prof. William M. Irvine is an Editor of the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology published by Springer in mid-2011 in both on-line and printed form. The editors have decided to regularly update the on-line version of the Encyclopedia; ultimately, a second edition will be produced. An immediate task is to correct the unavoidable omissions and mistakes in the first edition by re-reading carefully all 1800 entries. A larger and more significant task will be to identify possible new entries. Not only the current authors of articles, but members of relevant astrobiological societies, will be asked for suggestions for such additional articles. A meeting of the editors is scheduled to be held in Washington, DC, in September 2012. Note that the Encyclopedia contains 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. Irvine himself contributed some 90 Encyclopedia entries, and other GCA scientists have also contributed.

GCA Co-Investigator Prof. William M. Irvine and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst continue working toward bringing the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) into full operation. The LMT 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, of planetary and satellite atmospheres, and of organic molecules in the interstellar medium of the Milky Way and other galaxies (See Facilities, below). Attention is currently focused on improving the surface accuracy of the main reflector by using holographic techniques to set the individual surface panels. Early science observations are planned for spring 2013 using the inner 32m of the main dish, which will ultimately be 50m in diameter.

Administrative Activities Related to Astrobiology:
Irvine continued as President of the International Astronomical Union’s Commission 51, Bioastronomy. A major task in this regard was preparing for and participating in the IAU’s triennial General Assembly in Beijing, China, in August 2012. The Bioastronomy Commission sponsored the 5-day IAU Symposium 293, “Formation, Detection and Characterization of Extrasolar Habitable Planets”, and a 2-day Special Session on “Unexplained Spectral Phenomena in the Interstellar Medium” which are thought to have organic carriers, as well as organizing a morning astrobiology science session and its triennial business meeting. The 30 new members of Commission 51 bring the total membership to about 300.

The principal activity of Commission 51 is organizing a triennial conference. The success of the 2011 conference, held jointly with the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, led to the decision to hold another such joint meeting in 2014; an invitation to host this conference has been received from Japan. To evaluate the proposed site and related plans, Irvine joined ISSOL President David Deamer and SOC co-chairs Sun Kwok (Bioastronomy) and Sandra Pizzarello (ISSOL) in visiting Nara, Japan, in March 2012. Nara was the ancient capitol of Japan and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with excellent conference facilities. The Local Organizing Committee appears to have the situation well in hand, so that the Bioastronomy-ISSOL conference, to be called Origins 2014, will indeed be held in Nara in July 2014. Following the site visit, Irvine presented an invited talk on GCA research on organic molecules in space to the Japanese Society for the Study of the Origin of Life.

The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) is a joint project of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the country of Mexico, whose portion of the project is administered by the Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica (INAOE) in Tonantzintla, Puebla, Mexico. The LMT is the largest single-dish telescope in the world operating at short millimeter wavelengths. It will be augmented to a full 50 m diameter with funding promised by the Mexican science agency CONACyT. Irvine will insure that astrobiological research opportunities for the telescope are appreciated and taken into account in plans for instrumentation and operation.

The study of comets promises to be a particularly fruitful field for research with the LMT. The SEQUOIA 3mm-wavelength heterodyne array receiver is very well suited to mapping molecular emission in the cometary coma, a prerequisite for understanding the physical and chemical conditions and processes occurring there. Very few such studies have been possible in the past, due to both the dearth of bright comets and of sensitive array receivers (note that interferometric observations usually neglect extended, smooth emission).

Future Plans:
A prime goal of the LMT is rapid mapping of extended sources. The SEQUOIA heterodyne array has 32 elements that operate in the range 85-116 GHz, thus covering such important molecular lines as HCN, HNC, HCO+, CO, N2H+, OCS and CH3OH. If comet C/2012 S1 is anywhere near as bright as some predictions, it should be possible to map the coma in transitions of these species, thus elucidating chemical processes in the coma, the variation in physical parameters such as temperature and density, and the nature of the nuclear ices. These maps may be compared to the 1mm continuum emission, which can be mapped with the AzTEC bolometer array. Similar studies can be made of other bright comets which may be available during the coming year.

    William Irvine

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts