2013 Annual Science Report
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting | SEP 2012 – AUG 2013
Undergraduate Research Associates in Astrobiology (URAA)
2013 featured the Tenth URAA offering (Undergraduate Research Associates in Astrobiology), a ten-week residential research program at the Goddard Center for Astrobiology (GCA) (http://astrobiology.gsfc.nasa.gov/education.html). Competition was very keen, with an oversubscription ratio of 3.0. Students applied from over 19 colleges and universities in the United States, and 6 Associates from 6 institutions were selected. Each Associate carried out a defined research project working directly with a GCA scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center or the University of Maryland. As a group, the Associates met with a different GCA scientist each week, learning about his/her respective area of research, visiting diverse laboratories and gaining a broader view of astrobiology as a whole. At summer’s end, each Associate reported his/her research in a power point presentation projected nation-wide to member Teams in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, as part of the NAI Forum for Astrobiology Research (FAR) Series.
Associate Jolie Carlisle (University of California at Berkeley) – “Meteorite Amine Analysis Method Development”
Jolie Carlisle worked on the development of a novel method for the identification and quantification of aliphatic amines. For this task she used a high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) system coupled to a fluorescence detector and a mass spectrometer. The methodology she developed achieved the enantiomeric separation of a chiral amine (secbutyl amine). Her work can be applied to the study of aliphatic amines present in environmental samples, as well as in extraterrestrial samples such as carbon-based meteorites.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Jose Aponte (NASA-GSFC) mentored Ms. Carlisle
Associate Jordan Gulli (Duke University) – “The Response of a Halophilic Archaeon to Mars-Like Stressors”
Jordan Gulli studied survival and growth of the halophilic archaeon (Halobacterium salinarum) under simulated Martian-like conditions. This project is directly relevant to NASA’s planetary protection program and will have significant impact on the future strategy of the search of life on Mars. Microorganisms were mixed with Martian soil analogue powder, nutrients and water. Frozen soil mixture was placed in Goddard’s Martian simulation chamber and subjected to compound environmental stresses expected on the surface of Mars (low pressure, cold temperatures, CO2 atmosphere). Growth or death of microorganisms in the soil samples before and after the chamber experiments was determined using the standard MPN method. Preliminary results demonstrated that halophilic archaea can grow in the simulated Martian permafrost conditions. Jordan is currently writing a paper on her results to be submitted to the journal Astrobiology.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Alex Pavlov (NASA-GSFC) mentored Ms. Gulli.
Associate Luke Hecht (University of Edinburgh) – “DNA Extraction and Amplification Techniques for the Detection of DNA on Mars and Outgoing Spacecraft”
DNA is the most stable informational polymer known and has yet to be detected as a product of abiotic chemistry. Luke Hecht developed biotechnology techniques for proof-of-concept life detection using whole genome amplification via the Multiple Displacement Amplification (MDA) of DNA. He used MDA in combination with chemical precipitation, silica gel filtration and magnetic bead separation to make small amounts of DNA available for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Mr. Hecht’s research demonstrated the utility of MDA for making DNA available from low biomass environments. This work suggested directions for future research into genomic-based planetary protection and life detection on Mars.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Timothy Stephenson (NASA-GSFC) mentored Mr. Hecht.
Associate Sean Hoyt (Rowan University) – “The Primordial Composition of Comet C/1999 H1 (Lee) revealed through High-Resolution Molecular Spectroscopy”
Sean Hoyt analyzed high-resolution spectra of comet C/1999 H1 (Lee), acquired using the Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSPEC) of the powerful Keck II telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Sean applied highly advanced processing algorithms to extract spatially resolved cometary spectra, and made use of modern fluorescence models to derive molecular column densities and out-gassing rates. The new molecular models include a rigorous treatment of the line-by-line fluorescent excitation under non local-thermodynamic conditions, permitting highly accurate and realistic retrievals. For many species, the re-analysis of the cometary data led to noticeable changes in molecular abundances, emphasizing the importance of applying realistic models. His results show that the chemical composition of organic volatiles was relatively “normal” in comet Lee, with water, carbon monoxide and methanol dominating the cometary outgassing at 1.1 AU from the Sun.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Geronimo Villanueva (Catholic U/GSFC) mentored Mr. Hoyt.
Associate Meghan McCarthy (Harvard University) – “Can Chemical Reactions on Nebular Dust Synthesize Prebiotic Molecules?”
Meghan McCarthy ran numerous experiments to study the formation of complex hydrocarbons using surface-mediated reactions. Specifically, her experiments encompassed Fischer-Tropsch-type (FTT) reactions using well-characterized commercially available substrates, i.e., iron and magnetite. Ms. McCarthy obtained results for different temperatures and substrates, and found that any substrate may potentially serve as a catalyst for hydrocarbon formation. These experiments advanced the Cosmic Dust Laboratory’s investigations into FTT reactions and their role in catalyzing the formation of complex hydrocarbons in the early solar nebula.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Natasha Johnson (NASA-GSFC) mentored Ms. McCarthy.
Associate Cameron Trefny (Ohio State University) – “Analysis of Mars Analog Minerals”
Cameron Trefny performed experiments using evolved gas analysis coupled with mass spectrometry (EGA-MS) to better understand the carbon isotopic composition of natural carbonates and clay minerals. Cameron evolved gas from carbonate standards and captured different portions of the peak for isotopic analysis, to determine how well portions of the peak represent the true isotope composition of the rock. In addition, he ran EGA-MS experiments to characterize clay minerals according to the threshold temperatures at which water and hydrogen gas evolved from them during thermal decomposition. This work supported in situ measurements being made at Gale Crater on Mars by the SAM suite (Sample Analysis at Mars) on Curiosity – the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Jennifer Stern (NASA-GSFC) mentored Mr. Trefny.
PROJECT MEMBERS:Michael Mumma
RELATED OBJECTIVES:Objective 1.1
Formation and evolution of habitable planets.
Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts
Adaptation and evolution of life beyond Earth
Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials