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2015 Annual Science Report

SETI Institute Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

Executive Summary

The following sections summarize (1) the work performed by the SETI Institute NAI team in the past 10 months; (2) our interactions with other NAI teams; (3) students involvement in our research programs; and (4) the issues (resolved and unresolved) that were encountered. Publications for the same performance period are shown in appendix.

Research Area 1A: The Signatures of Habitability – Remote Sensing
Objective 1: Visible, multi- & hyperspectral characterization of ancient habitable environments on Mars from remote sensing; Objective 2: Visible, multi- and hyperspectral characterization of analogs to Mars ancient habitable environments through lab analysis; Objective 3: Martian aqueous environments studies using Digital Terrain Models (DTMs).
Obj. 1. represents activities that will be on going throughout the duration of the project. The near-term goals set for year 1 will be completed by the Year 1 report deadline. Currently, a peer-reviewed paper has been submitted to EPSL on nanophase alluminosilicates at Mawrth Vallis (Bishop Lead), which discusses how changing mineralogy in the valley stratigraphy is evidence of climate change on Mars. The CRISM analysis tool has been updated and the analysis of Nili Fossae is ongoing. It was discussed at the Mars 2020 landing site workshop in Pasadena in August 2015, as well as the hypothesis of the existence of talc-carbonate on Mars (Brown Lead). The work on regional carbonates (Wray Lead) has been included in Irwin’s Holden crater presentation to support the Mars 2020 landing site workshop as well. Obj. 2 Analyses of samples from the Atacama are underway, including gypsum-bearing rocks and samples showing volcanic alteration to understand smectites mixed with acidic components (Bishop Lead). Obj. 3. (Gulick Lead): The data pipeline at NASA Ames is now installed and running. DTMs were generated for CTX, HRSC, and HiRISE DTMs. The SOCET SET digital mapping software application is installed and we have began selecting potential martian study sites with stereo coverage in CTX and HiRISE.

Research Area 1B: The Signatures of Habitability: In Situ Detection
Objective 1: Biomarker profiling with LDChip; Objective 2: Geochemical analysis by ion chromatograpy of samples collected in 2015 in the Atacama; Objective 3: Coring systems and Context Imager; Objective 4: Signatures of Habitability: Connecting Orbital and In Situ Data.
Obj. 1-2 (Parro Lead): Sampling and in situ microbial biomarker detection were performed along a humidity gradient with the immunosensor LDChip in the Atacama desert in 2015. A set of 90 samples were collected and received by CAB. They were analyzed by IC (samples enriched in sulfate, chloride, and nitrate) and XRD (gypsum, halite, albite, and other phyllosilicates). New antibodies were produced to three cyanobacterial strains of Chroococcidiopsis genus through a new collaboration with Dr. Daniela Billi (University of Rome “Tor Vergata”, Italy). Chroococcidiopsis spp. Are highly resistant to desiccation and live in the most extreme deserts on Earth (Negev, Atacama, Dry Valleys). These new antibodies will help us detect the remains of these microbes in dry habitats. Obj. 3: The hand held coring instrument has been designed and fabricated to meet the requirements of the Mars 2020 system, including encapsulating samples. Lab testing have started in preparation of the 2016 field campaign (Zacny Lead). The Context Imager for in situ imaging of samples and their geological context has been designed (Wettergreen Lead). Obj. 4: (Moersch Lead): Inventory of field sites was collected from the team members in February. Collaboration was started with Phillips to acquire existing remote sensing scenes for these targets. A dry run (unaffiliated field expedition in Iceland in August 2015) was performed of the same types of UAV data collection methods that the team will be using for the project. (Phillips Lead): Methodology was developed for fast 3D rendering (Digital Elevation Models, DEMs) of the terrestrial analogs that will be investigated in 2016. These datasets will be used to support the development of the nested imagery strategy (orbit to ground to lab) and as field sample locator systems. The first DEMs of the Arctic field site were created in support of the field deployment of Sobron and Andersen that took place in summer 2015.

Research Area 2: Taphonimic Windows & Biosignature Preservation
Objective 1: Field Deployments; Objective 2: Lab sample analysis.
Obj. 1. Atacama (Davila Lead): In situ metabolic activity has been demonstrated in the hyperarid core of the Atacama; A Pulse-Amplitude-Modulation (PAM) probe has been successfully deployed in an endolithic community for continuous, in situ, monitoring of metabolic activity; a baseline characterization of lipid biomarkers in Atacama soils has been performed. A conceptual model of habitability and ecological change as a function of dryness has been completed and published; Western US (Farmer Lead): Data and literature review was performed for potential sites for focused sampling and team studies. This also included a review of lab data for samples collected from local study sites as preparation for the 2016 Atacama work, including: Camp Verde (AZ) sulfate evaporites: biosignature preservation tracked through diagenesis; comparative petrographic studies of microbial preservation over a broad pH and temperature range in hydrothermal spring siliceous sinters from the western US. Arctic (Andersen Lead): Andersen, Sobron, and Pollard successfully deployed to the McGill Artic Research Station, Axel Heinerg, in Nunavut Canada. Measurements and samples were obtained at four perennial and/or paleo-spring sites (Gypsum Hills, Colour Peak, Fossil Sprints, Lost Hammer). In situ measurements included: NIR reflectance, Raman (532 nm, Sobron Lead), water, temperature, pH. Local climate data were collected with a Campbell Met. Station. Yellowstone National Park (Hinman Lead): Hinman and Cady went to YNP to collect samples for Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) studies and to select future sites for more detailed work in 2016. Obj. 2. The Atacama samples can be now used to test flight instrument performance. In addition, initial planning for the 2016 field deployments in Chile and Australia are underway (see also Research Area 1A, Objective 2). The analysis of ROS and photoreactive species, including lab calibration and field deployment will start after spring 2016; Raman analysis of green rust samples from the Arctic are currently being completed (Sobron Lead) (see also 2.0).

Research Area 3: Environmental Control on Biosignature Preservation
Objective 1: Characterizing and modeling of extreme UV radiation at the surface of the Earth; Objective 2: Development of round-robin protocols for shared (natural and synthetic) samples; Objective 3: Biosignature preservation in minerals.
Obj. 1. (Cabrol Lead – in collaboration with Häder and Feister). We refined the model of UV enhancement by scattering of UV radiation from clouds to explain world record UV storms in the Andes. This was done in preparation of the 2016 field deployment of new dosimeters in the High Andes of Chile at sites where organic/mineral mixtures will be left in the field. Modeling also helped us select the UV diodes for the new instruments. The dosimeters have been assembled in Germany by D-P. Häder, and the next step will be to ship them to the US for test and calibration in Richard Quinn’s lab in spring of 2016 before the field deployment in fall. Obj. 2 (RA3 research team effort: Quinn, Hinman, Cady, Summers, Ertem). The group established a list of targeted minerals and organic compounds for lab and field radiation experiments. Via weekly telecoms over the course of the past 10 months, they established protocols for mineral synthesis, then started production of larger quantities, and received organic compounds for incorporation into minerals. (Quinn Lead): Completed the preparation of sulfate and sulfate/organic analogs and refurbished the X-ray photoelectron spectrometer; and analyzed ROS in radiation damaged perchlorates and Mars analog salt samples. Obj. 3. (Ertem Lead). Organic-free minerals and mineral-biosignature mixtures were prepared. The mixtures were irradiated in a Mars Simulation Chamber. Organics were extracted and analyzed from the irradiated mixtures and controls. A manuscript is ready to submit for publication.

Research Area 4: Adaptive Detection of Biosignatures
Objective 1: Develop multi-resolution data analysis methods for nested exploration strategy (from orbit to the ground); Objective 2: Autonomous detection of biosignatures in layered sediments; Objective 3: Raman Spectral and Imaging Data Library.
Obj. 1. (Wettergreen Lead): The start of the work was delayed 6 months (see 4.0) but we are now catching up and focusing on extrapolating surface spectra to surrounding terrain by correlating with orbital spectra. Imagery from one of our field sites in the Atacama is being used to develop the methodology. Obj. 2. (Cady: Lead): This objective was not reached in year one due to difficulties in establishing the subcontract with PNNL. The work has not started yet. The subcontract is being finalized pending resolution on IP issues and a recovery plan has been requested to Cady (see 4.0). Obj. 3. (Gulick Lead): We began taking spectral and imaging data of existing sedimentary samples in our library, and collecting and analyzing new sedimentary and potential biosignature samples, including gypsum from new samples from the Atacama. We also have initiated work on our classification algorithms for sedimentary minerals, rocks, and biosignature by building training and testing datasets of existing samples.


  • Investigation of serpentinization processes on Mars (Brown Lead) in collaboration with the RPL NAI Team (Templeton, PI). As part of this activity, Adrian Brown will be giving the NAI Director’s seminar on October 26, 2015, entitled: Serpentinization on Mars: Theory and Observations.
  • Completed a draft of a proposal for a Biosignature Detection Working Group at the NAI (Cabrol: SETI Institute team, Chair; Kanik: JPL Icy World team, Co-Chair). The proposal has been well received, with contributions and interest from 11 of the 12 NAI teams at this time. The proposal is now moving forward, the next step is to identify priorities within the two key science themes.
  • Sobron performed Raman analysis of green rust samples in collaboration with the JPL Icy Worlds team, and obtained preliminary data with the Mars 2020 SHERLOC instrument lab replica. Joined field work between the two teams has taken place this year.
  • Summers started sample analyses using the IR microscope; he established how to obtain best results with the instrument and investigated the detection on some synthetic analogs and observation of organics with respect to mineral interferences; he studied how well mapping of sample works (e.g., heterogeneity in physical mixtures). There is a high-level group coordination of samples and organic detection taking place between the two teams.


  • SETI Institute (12). Summer students supervised by Andersen and Davila: James Bevington – International Space University, Masters in Space Studies Program, Strasbourg Central Campus, 67400 Strasbourg, France; Patrick Carlson – The University of California, Berkeley; Harrison Steel – Bachelor’s Degree, Mechanical (space) Engineering/ Advanced Science, University of Sydney. Students supervised by Janice Bishop: Sara King, former intern and recent B.S. graduate: working part-time on projects involving gypsum and carbonates; Shital Patel, former intern and recent B.S. graduate: working part-time on projects involving Antarctic sediments; Alicia Noel, former intern and recent B.S. graduate: started in October 2015 on a Mawrth Vallis project. Students supervised by Virginia Gulick: Natalie Glines, SETI Institute research assistant, B. S. degree, working part-time on generating and analyzing CTX and HiRISE DTMs in preparation for RA1 studies; Patrick Freeman, SETI Institute research assistant, B. S. degree, currently starting M.S. degree studies at UCSC. Worked part-time on obtaining Raman spectra and images of samples. He worked part-time on building training and testing datasets for spectral algorithms for RA4 studies; Tim Johnsen, former intern and SETI Institute research assistant, UC – Irvine rising junior; Paige Morkner, SETI Institute REU summer intern, late June – August, 2015. Worked part-time on collecting and analyzing sedimentary samples containing potential biosignatures in hand samples; Jason Angell, current intern, started September 1, 2015, rising junior at NYU. He works part-time to obtain Raman spectra of gypsum samples from the Atacama and other samples, and continuing to develop algorithms for biosignature classifiers. Student supervised by Richard Quinn: Stephan Heywood, California State University San Marcos, Junior – Assisted in the preparation of analog samples.
  • University of Montana (1) (Nancy Hinman): Alan Dillon, pursuing second B. S. degree.
  • *ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration (2)( (Jack Farmer): Svetlana Shkolyar, PhD student, Raman studies of sulfate evaporites to assess kerogen preservation through diagenesis; and Jonathan Zaloumis, Undergraduate lab assistant (degree completed) Has just moved to the University of Washington, for PhD work under the supervision of Prof. Roger Buick.
  • Ohio State University (1) (Sobron, co-adviser): Tajana Scheneidermann, B.S. in physics. Master thesis “Adaptive multi-sensor data fusion models for in situ explorations of Mars. Note: In 2015, Tajana won OSU’s Denman Award for undergraduate research, and an Outstanding Student Paper award at the 2014 Fall AGU conference for her work related to automated identification of Mars astrobiology-relevant salts.
  • Georgia Tech (1) (James Wray): Mary Beth Wilhem, NSF-supported PhD student (and NASA Ames civil servant trainee): working part-time on carbonate spectral analysis. Her dissertation focuses on biomarker preservation in the Atacama.
  • University of Tennessee (1) (Jeff Moersch): Michael Phillips, PhD student, hired 8/15.
  • CAB Madrid (2) (Victor Parro): Ignacio Gallardo, through the Spanish Ministry. Third year PhD student, and Ana Gómez-Cifuentes, INTA-CAB, post graduate student training grant, one year.

Most issues were related to delayed subcontracts and funds transfers:

  • Resolved – Budget cut: Our original proposal budget was cut 8 percent across the five years, which forced our team to realign our investigations and goals. The revised budget was submitted to the NAI. Note: At this time, we are still missing over $300K to complete year 1.
  • Resolved – Delayed Subcontracts and Fund Transfers:
    • James Wray: Georgia Tech subcontract initiation package was completed Aug. 5, 2015. Work schedule is back on track now.
    • Cynthia Phillips: Cynthia went from the SETI Institute to JPL. Funding transfer was delayed but full recovery of schedule is expected by the first quarter of 2016.
    • David Wettergreen: Delayed funding start, which resulted in missed year 1 students. However, quickly catching up on technical work and schedule recovery expected by the calendar end of 2015.
  • Unresolved – PNNL Delayed Subcontract:
    • Sherry Cady: Road-blocks encountered for this subcontract from the beginning. The direct route of fund transfer between NASA and PNNL did not work. The route through the SETI Institute appears to be a viable one but took months to establish with PNNL. However, the work has still not started yet, the last hurdle is a disagreement between PNNL and the SETI Institute over Intellectual Property (IP). The SETI Institute is getting expert advise from a IP lawyer to resolve this last issue. We will be also requesting a recovery plan from PNNL for year 1.
  • Other, minor: Delays caused by weather in the High Arctic cut a couple of days into the duration of the field deployment. The LIBS instrument was not available due to instrument problems. Data will have to be recovered during our subsequent deployment. The X-ray photoelectron spectrometer needed to be refurbished and has been serviced.