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2015 Annual Science Report

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

Undergraduate Research Associates in Astrobiology (URAA)

Project Summary

2015 saw the twelfth session of our summer program for talented science students (Under-graduate Research Associates in Astrobiology), a ten-week residential research program tenured at Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland, College Park ( Competition was again very keen, with an over-subscription ratio of 4.7. Students applied from over 19 Colleges and Universities in the United States, and 4 Interns from 4 institutions were selected. Each Intern 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.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
1 Publication
1 Field Site
Field Sites

Project Progress

Associate Patrick Tamburo (University of Maryland) – “Identifying Atmospheric Temperature Inversions in Hot Jupiters Using Wide Field Camera 3 on HST”
Mr. Tamburo adapted our existing data reduction tools for HST exoplanet transit spectroscopy observations to handle new types of data sets. The old software was only able to handle a single image size, and a very specific observation methodology. Patrick made the codes more general and able to analyze a wide range of observations. He tested the new software on data for WASP-18b, a Hot Jupiter exoplanet expected to have an unusual upper-atmosphere temperature structure. He was able to demonstrate excellent initial results on the band-integrated transit light curve, and hopes to complete the analysis as a continuation of his project while at the University of Maryland.
GCA Co-Investigator Dr. Avi Mandell mentored Mr. Tamburo

Associate Tiffany Jansen (University of Washington) – “Adding Exomoons to the Haystacks Project: Realistic Simulations of Exoplanet Observations in the Presence of Exozodiacal Dust”
Ms. Jensen worked on the “Finding the Needles in the Haystacks” project. This project’s goal is to create realistic simulated observations of a diverse range of extrasolar planets in aid of future mission development. Tiffany’s idea was to simulate a warm Jupiter in the habitable zone of a sun-like star, orbited by an Earth-like moon, and see if there is a technique that can separate the spectra of the planet and moon. She wrote a code to model the orbital position of the moon and developed a spectral image cube for the complete system, incorporating an appropriate interplanetary dust structure. She then created and applied a simple telescope model to make simulated images at many wavelengths. She found that with a 12-meter space telescope, one may see a hint that the planet has a moon, but separating the two spectra will be extremely challenging.
GCA Co-Investigator Dr. Aki Roberge mentored Ms. Jensen

Associate Maureen Palmer (St. Olaf College) – “Detection of Nitriles on Titan Using ALMA”
Ms. Palmer worked on the retrieval and analysis of interferometric maps of organic chemicals in Titan’s atmosphere, using data from the ALMA science archive. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is host to a rich organic chemistry, and provides us with a window into the understanding of primitive planetary atmospheres throughout the Galaxy. Combining multiple integrations obtained at mm and sub-mm wavelengths, Maureen was able to achieve unprecedented sensitivity at high spatial and spectral resolution, from which new molecular maps of Titan’s Earth-facing hemisphere were derived. Major results included the first spectroscopic detection of vinyl cyanide on Titan as well as detections of the rare isotopologues of acetonitrile, providing important new insights into Titan’s nitrogen chemistry.
GCA Collaborator Dr. Martin Cordiner mentored Ms. Palmer; Dr. Conor Nixon assisted.

Associate Beatriz Saldana (Florida Institute of Technology) – “An Australian Acid Playa Lake as Mars Analog”
Ms. Saldana was instrumental in preparing samples for a variety of natural and synthetic geomaterials we work with in the lab. She milled, sieved and pre-treated samples from an Australian acid brine playa lake, gypsum crystals from lake cores, products from a synthetic smectite reaction, and a mineralogical analog of the Cumberland site sampled by Curiosity rover on Mars. Beatriz prepared these samples for both carbon and deuterium isotope analysis. She learned to operate the IRMS (isotope ratio mass spectrometer) and analyzed several sets of samples, corrected the data for various confounding factors, and provided an interpretation of the data. Beatriz also took part in a Raman examination of several geologic samples, a series of isotope measurements to establish an in-house standard. She researched organic extraction and DNA isolation methods for acidic sediment samples, providing a very thorough review of the literature.
GCA Collaborator Jennifer Stern mentored Ms. Saldana.

    Michael Mumma Michael Mumma
    Project Investigator
    Corinne Eby

    Tiffany Jansen
    Unspecified Role

    Maureen Palmer
    Unspecified Role

    Beatriz Saldana
    Unspecified Role

    Patrick Tamburo
    Unspecified Role

    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 1.2
    Indirect and direct astronomical observations of extrasolar habitable planets.

    Objective 2.1
    Mars exploration.

    Objective 2.2
    Outer Solar System exploration

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 6.2
    Adaptation and evolution of life beyond Earth

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials