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2013 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 1.2 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2012 – AUG 2013

Project Reports

  • Project 1: Looking Outward: Studies of the Physical and Chemical Evolution of Planetary Systems

    We continue to apply theory and observations to investigate the nature and distribution of extrasolar planets both through radial velocity and astrometric methods, the composition of circumstellar disks, early mixing and transport in young disks, and late mixing and planetary migration in the Solar System, and Solar System bodies.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1
  • Habitability, Biosignatures, and Intelligence

    Understanding the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the Universe is one of the primary goals of astrobiology. Based on the only example of life we know, we have devel-oped various concepts to predict, detect, and investigate habitability, biosignatures and intelli-gence occurrence in the near-solar environment. In particular, we are searching for water vapor in atmospheres of extrasolar planets and protoplanets, developing techniques for remote detec-tion of photosynthetic organisms on other planets, have detected a possible bio-chemistry sig-nature in Martian clays contemporary with early life on Earth, developed a comprehensive methodology and an interactive website for calculating habitable zones in binary stellar systems, expanded on definitions of habitable zones in the Milky way Galaxy, and proposed a novel ap-proach for searching extraterrestrial intelligence.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1 3.2 4.1 4.2 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Disks and the Origins of Planetary Systems

    This task is concerned with the evolution of complex habitable environments. The planet formation process begins with fragmentation of large molecular clouds into flattened 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 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 the surface, it is in the so-called “habitable zone.” The formation process and identification of such life-supporting bodies is the goal of this project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1 4.1 4.3
  • Climates and Evolution of Extrasolar Terrestrial Planets

    Planetary climate results from the interplay of a large number of different physical processes, including radiative heating and cooling, advection and dynamics, latent heating and cloud effects, atmosphere-interior interactions, and the presence of life. Atmospheres and climate then evolve through time due to interplay between these processes and longer-term effects, such as atmospheric escape, orbital evolution, and other dynamical interactions. Since planetary climate determines surface habitability, we can better understand how planets maintain habitability over long time periods by studying and modeling the large network of interactions that determine the atmospheric state of a planet and how it changes through time.

  • Earth as an Extrasolar Planet

    Earth is our only example of a habitable planet, or a planet capable of maintaining liquid water on its surface. As a result, Earth serves as the archetypal habitable world in conceptual studies of future exoplanet characterization missions, or in studies of techniques for the remote characterization of potentially habitable exoplanets. We seek to accurately simulate the time-, phase-, and wavelength-dependent appearance of the Pale Blue Dot, and to use these models to understand how to best recognize and characterize potentially Earth-like exoplanets.

  • Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings

    We are working on finding potentially habitable extrasolar planets, using a variety of search techniques, and developing some of the technology necessary to find and characterize low mass extrasolar planets. We also work on modeling and numerical techniques relevant to the problem of identifying extrasolar sites for life, and on some aspects of the prospects for life in the Solar System outside the Earth. The ultimate goal is to find signatures of life on nearby extrasolar planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 4.1 4.3 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Exoplanet Detection and Characterization: Observations

    In this task, VPL researchers use astronomical instrumentation to detect and measure the properties of exoplanets. They also study terrestrial planets in our Solar System that can serve as practice targets for exoplanet observational techniques. These observations help us to develop and understand the techniques and measurements required to learn about planetary environments. Although many of these observations are now made on planets that are too large, or too close to their stars to be habitable, once proven, these techniques can then be adapted to help characterize the smaller, cooler planets that may be habitable.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 2.2 7.2
  • Exoplanet Detection and Characterization: Techniques, Retrieval and Analysis

    In this task VPL team members use theoretical modeling and analysis to develop new techniques for detecting and characterizing extrasolar planets. These include developing new techniques for detecting exoplanets in transit data, especially those planets with unusual orbital properties. Team members also work to provide the underlying theory required to develop new remote-sensing techniques for probing planetary atmospheres. They also work on techniques and tests for the retrieval of information about planetary environments from exoplanet photometry and spectra.

  • Evolution of Protoplanetary Disks and Preparations for Future Observations of Habitable Worlds

    The evolution of protoplanetary disks tells the story of the birth of planets and the formation of habitable environments. Microscopic interstellar materials are built up into larger and larger bodies, eventually forming planetesimals that are the building blocks of terrestrial planets and their atmospheres. With the advent of ALMA, we are poised to break open the study of young exoplanetesimals, probing their organic content with detailed observations comparable to those obtained for Solar System bodies. Furthermore, studies of planetesimal debris around nearby mature stars are paving the way for future NASA missions to directly observe potentially habitable exoplanets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1 4.3 7.2
  • Exploring the Chemical Composition of Hot Exoplanets With the Hubble Space Telescope

    We have used the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to observe exoplanet transit and eclipse measurements for a number of highly irradiated, Jupiter-mass planets, with a focus on confirming which planets exhibit water absorption in transit and/or eclipse and measuring the characteristic brightness temperature at these wavelengths. Measurements of molecular absorption in the atmospheres of these planets offer the chance to explore several outstanding questions regarding the atmospheric structure and composition of hot Jupiters, including the possibility of bulk compositional variations between planets and the presence or absence of a stratospheric temperature inversion.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 7.2
  • Habitable Planet Formation and Orbital Dynamical Effects on Planetary Habitability

    The VPL explores how variations in orbital properties affects the growth, evolution and habitability of planets. The formation process must deliver the appropriate ingredients for life to a planet in order for it to become habitable. After planets form, interactions between a habitable planet at its host star and/or other planets in the system can change planetary properties, possibly rendering the planet uninhabitable. The VPL models these processes through computer models in order to understand how the Earth became and remains habitable, as well as examining and predicting habitability on planets outside the Solar System.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1 4.3
  • Planetary Surface and Interior Models and SuperEarths

    We use computer models to simulate the evolution of the interior and the surface of real and hypothetical planets around other stars. Our goal is to work out what sorts of initial characteristics are most likely to contribute to making a planet habitable in the long run. Observations in our own Solar System show us that water and other essential materials are continuously consumed via weathering (and other processes: e.g., subduction, sediment burial) and must be replenished from the planet’s interior via volcanic activity to maintain a biosphere. The surface models we are developing will be used to predict how gases and other materials will be trapped through weathering and biological processes over time. Our interior models are designed to predict tidal effects, heat flow, and how much and what sort of materials will come to a planet’s surface through resurfacing and volcanic activity throughout its history.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 5.2 6.1
  • Stellar Effects on Planetary Habitability and the Limits of the Habitable Zone

    In this task VPL Team members explore the interactions between a planet and its parent star and how these interactions affect whether or not the planet can support life. These interactions can be radiative, with light from the star affecting the planet’s climate, or UV from stellar flares affecting the radiation environment at the planet’s surface. Or they interactions can be gravitational, with the star periodically deforming planets on elliptical orbits and thereby transferring energy into the planet. Both radiative and gravitational effects can input too much heat into a planet’s environment and cause it to lose the ability to maintain liquid water at the surface. Research this year included looking at the limits of the habitable zone with new calculations, exploring how gravitational tidal energy could cause a planet to lose its ocean, and understanding the effects that tidal deformation and incoming stellar radiation would have on the habitability of exomoons.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1
  • The Nature and Detectability of Astronomical Biosignatures

    In this project VPL team members explore the nature and detectability of biosignatures, global signs of life in the atmosphere or on the surface of a planet. This year we completed comprehensive modeling work that explores the potential for non-biological generation of oxygen and ozone in early Earth-like atmospheres, which could result in a “false positives” for photosynthetic life. We also explored the detectability of molecular dimers, especially O2-O2 as potentially easier to detect biosignature gases for transit transmission observations.

    We also calculated maximum methane fluxes from the geological process of serpentinization, as a potential false positive for life, and looked at the nature and detectability of non-photosynthetic pigments as potential biosignatures for life on exoplanets. We also started work to develop new, more generalized biosignatures via measurement of thermodyamic and kinetic anomalies in planetary atmospheric compositions that are associated with life. We complemented this theoretical work with field work in caves dominated by sulfur-bacteria, to understand isotopic processing of sulfur by life, as a potential biosignature for life on Mars, or for planets with sulfur-domianted biospheres.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 7.2
  • NNX09AH63A Origin and Evolution of Organics in Planetary Systems

    The Blake group has been carrying out joint observational and laboratory program with NAI node scientists on the water and simple organic chemistry in the protoplanetary disk analogs of the solar nebula and in comets. Observationally, we continue to build on our extensive (>100 disks) Spitzer IRS survey of the infrared molecular emission from the terrestrial planet forming region of disks with follow-up work using the high spectral resolution ground-based observations of such emission (via the Keck and the Very Large Telescopes, the Herschel Space Observatory, and ALMA) along with that from comets. This year, we emphasized the disk systems in which we have probed the outer disk’s water emission with the Herschel HIFI instrument. With Herschel PACS we have measured the ground state emission from HD for the first time, yielding much more accurate mass estimates, that we have used in turn to carry out the first detailed examination of the radial water abundance structure in the planet-forming environments represented by the so-called transitional disk class. In the laboratory, we have developed a novel approach to broad-band chirped pulse microwave spectroscopy that promises to drop the size, mass and cost of such instruments by one to two orders of magnitude. We are using the new instrument to measure the rotational spectra of prebiotic compounds, and our existing THz Time Domain Spectrometer to characterize their large amplitude vibrations. Looking forward, these techniques have the potential to make site-specific stable isotope measurements, a capability we will explore with GSFC Node scientists.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1
  • Understanding Past Earth Environments

    For much of the history Earth, life on the planet existed in an environment very different than that of modern-day Earth. Thus, the ancient Earth represents a planet with a biosphere that is both dramatically different than the one in which we live, but that is also accessible to detailed study. As such, it serves as a model for what types of biospheres we may find on other planets. A particular focus of our work was on the “Early Earth” (formation through to about 500 million years ago), a timeframe poorly represented in the geological and fossil records but comprises the majority of Earth’s history. We have studied the composition, pressure and climate of the ancient atmosphere; the delivery of biologically available phosphorus; studied the sulfur, oxygen and nitrogen cycles; and explored atmospheric formation of molecules that were likely important to the origins of life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 4.2 5.1 5.2 6.1
  • Task 3.5.1: Titan as a Prebiotic Chemical System

    Six years ago, NASA sponsored a National Academies report that asked whether life might exist in environments outside of the traditional habitable zone, where “weird” genetic molecules, metabolic processes, and bio‐structures might avoid the water‐based biochemistry that is found across the terran biosphere. In pursuit of this “big picture” question, we turned to Titan, which has exotic solvents both on its surface (methane‐hydrocarbon) and sub‐surface (perhaps super‐cooled ammonia‐rich water). This work sought genetic molecules that might support Darwinian evolution in both environments, including non‐ionic polyether molecules in the first and biopolymers linked by exotic oxyanions (such as phosphite, arsenate, arsenite, germanate) in the second. Further, we asked about the possibility that Titan might inform our understanding of prebiotic chemical processes, including those on “warm Titans”. Our experimental activities found few possibilities for non‐phosphate-based genetics in subsurface aqueous environments, even if they are rich in ammonia at very low temperatures. Further, we showed that polyethers are insufficiently soluble in hydrocarbons at very low temperatures, such as the 90‐100 K found on Titan’s surface. However, we did show that “warm Titans” could exploit propane as a biosolvent for certain of these “weird” alternative genetic biopolymers; propane has a huge liquid range (far larger than water). Further, we integrated this work with other work that allows reduced molecules to appear as precursors for more standard genetic biomolecules, especially through interaction with various mineral species.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.2 3.1 3.2 4.1 4.2 5.3 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • SMACK: A New Algorithm for Modeling Collisions and Dynamics of Planetesimals in Debris Disks

    Finding habitable planets and understanding the delivery of volatiles to their surfaces requires understanding the disks of rocky and icy debris that these planets orbit within. But modeling the physics of these disks is complicated because of the challenge of tracking collisions among trillions of trillions of colliding bodies. We developed a new technique and a new code for modeling the collisions and dynamics of debris disks, called “SMACK” which will help us interpret images of planetary systems to better understand how planetesimals transport material within young planetary systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1
  • The Astrobiology Walk

    The Goddard Center for Astrobiology (GCA) has completed the development and installation of a permanent outdoor exhibit at the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Visitor Center as a major public outreach effort. The “Astrobiology Walk” is designed to showcase the latest scientific discoveries from the GCA research theme “Search for the Origin and Evolution of Organics” in the context of a timeline for the evolution of the Universe and the Solar System. The exhibit consists of ten outdoor stations situated on the circular pathway around the Visi-tor Center’s “Rocket Garden”, each with a memorable iconic 3D object to convey the main scientific message. QR codes link each placard to web sites relevant to that topic.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 4.1 4.3 7.1 7.2