Graduating Astrobiology student featured in ‘Inside Rensselaer’

Class of 2017 graduate Christina Akirtava is featured in the May 2017 issue of Inside Rensselaer. Majoring in Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology, with a minor in Astrobiology, Christina is an exemplar of the interdisciplinary science environment at Rensselaer. In her article entitled How to Succeed at Rensselaer, she notes that experiencing undergraduate research opened avenues she never thought possible, including a once in a life time opportunity to spend a semester working on a research project at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany: “Taking a semester off to dive into pure research not only taught me endless biotechnical skills, but broadened my understanding of different cultures.”

Christina has been admitted to the Ph.D. program in computational biology at Carnegie Mellon, starting fall 2017.

Read the full article here.

Astronomy Graduate Student Emily Kosmaczewski Wins Fulbright Award

Emily Kosmaczewski, a graduate student in astronomy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant for the 2017-2018 academic year from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Kosmaczewski will spend her Fulbright tenure conducting research on radio galaxies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She is the eighth student from Rensselaer to win a Fulbright award, and the first to pursue research in physics and astronomy.

Read the full story here.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope reveals largest batch of Earth-size, habitable-zone planets around a single star

In a news release today, NASA reports that its Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. “This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations”, said RPI graduate Sean Carey ’88, Ph.D.’95, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.” Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

Read the full story here

The Ancient Atmosphere and Carbon and Nitrogen in the Earth’s Crust

Carbon and nitrogen are central to life on Earth – life cannot exist without them, but an overabundance in the atmosphere imperils the life we have. So how much carbon and nitrogen is there on (and in) planet Earth? And how much was in the ancient atmosphere? Actually, no one is really sure. The amount of carbon and nitrogen trapped in minerals in the Earth’s crust is one factor in the equation, and the subject of a three-year research project supported by a $900,000 grant to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from the U.S. Department of Energy. In their work, researchers will examine the ability of minerals to absorb and retain carbon and nitrogen. By doing so, they may also uncover a new source of information about the ancient atmosphere.

Read the full story here.

Extraterrestrial Impact may have preceded Ancient Global Warming Event

A comet strike may have triggered the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a rapid warming of the Earth caused by an accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide 56 million years ago, which offers analogs to global warming today. Sorting through samples of sediment from the time period, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered evidence of the strike in the form of microtektites – tiny dark glassy spheres typically formed by extraterrestrial impacts. The research is published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

Read the full story here.

Gearing up for the James Webb Space Telescope

poster2The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the premier observatory of the next decade, effectively the new “Hubble”, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. A collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, the JWST has a 6.5-meter primary mirror and is scheduled for launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in October, 2018. It will have major impact on a wide range of fundamental science questions, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems and the sources of organic molecules and water that support the origin of life on planets like Earth.

Planning for observations with the JWST is already making great strides. Exploring the conditions and resources that lead to the origins of life is a research field in which members of RPI’s New York Center for Astrobiology have particular experience and expertise. Doug Whittet recently attended a workshop “Ice Age – The Era of the James Webb Space Telescope”, presenting an invited review on the current status and future directions of observations of interstellar ices. This workshop, hosted by the Lorentz Center at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands (October 4-7, 2016), was attended by 50 researchers specializing in this area of research. New teams were formed that will develop detailed observing programs aimed at elucidating the physical and chemical processes that provided the raw materials for life on our planet and other habitable worlds.


The Origin of Life: RNA World Deep Beneath the Surface

Where did life begin? In a shallow lagoon, or in a vent of superheated water spewing from the ocean floor? If we knew, we might know where to look for life elsewhere in the universe. The “RNA World” hypothesis, which suggests that ribonucleic acid (RNA) was the original prebiotic molecule, has traditionally looked to a shallow, sunlit pool of water. But researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute say other environments on early Earth could have supported the formation of RNA.

Read the full story here.

Historic Fossils Find New Life Telling the Story of Ancient Proteins

A few snippets of protein extracted from the fossil of an extinct species of giant beaver are opening a new door in paleoproteomics, the study of ancient proteins. Ancient proteins can be used to place animals on the evolutionary tree, and could offer insights into how life and Earth’s environment have evolved over time. Typically, paleoproteomics relies on fossils collected for the purpose. But in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute used a fossil collected more than 170 years ago in central New York, and housed at the New York State Museum.

Read the full story here.

Life’s Building Blocks Form in Replicated Deep Sea Vents

Chimney-like mineral structures on the seafloor could have helped create the RNA molecules that gave rise to life on Earth, and hold promise as potential catalysts for the emergence of life on distant planets. New research that simulates this process in the laboratory, carried out in the New York Center for Astrobiology by Professor Linda McGown and graduate student Bradley Burcar, has been highlighted in the NASA Astrobiology Institute news page: click here for a link to the full story. Bradley, who was the first recipient of the James Ferris Fellowship in Astrobiology at RPI, completed his PhD in 2015 and is now a postdoc at Georgia Tech.

Astrobiology Strategy 2015: An Overview of Research Goals for the Next Decade

Astrobio_Strat_Plan_Cover3A 250-page document presenting a strategy for the next decade of astrobiology research has just been released by NASA. Many members of the astrobiology community contributed to its development and content over the past 2 years, through a series of in person meetings, white papers and webinars (a link to the webinar on production of organic monomers is available here). The strategy document replaces the Astrobiology Roadmap, published in 2008. Since then, research in the field has focused more and more on the link between the “astro” and the “bio” in astrobiology, in particular, what makes a planetary body habitable. Six major areas of research are identified in the new strategy document, each described in a separate chapter, and an overview of challenges and opportunities in Astrobiology is given in the final chapter. The six major areas are:

  • Identifying abiotic sources of organic compounds
  • Synthesis and function of macromolecules in the origin of life
  • Early life and increasing complexity
  • Co-evolution of life and the physical environment
  • Identifying, exploring, and characterizing environments for habitability and biosignatures
  • Constructing habitable worlds

Anyone which an interest in Astrobiology research should read this document!  It is available as a free download from NASA’s astrobiology website.


Sibelius and Astronomy: Cosmic Connections


Most classical music lovers will be familiar with at least a few works by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). His catalog includes 7 symphonies, a violin concerto, and numerous symphonic poems and orchestral suites, in addition to popular works such as Finlandia and Valse Triste. To aspiring astronomers in the United Kingdom over the past 60 years, Sibelius’s music has been inextricably linked with astronomy through the use of “At the Castle Gate” from his Pelléas et Mélisande Suite as the theme for The Sky at Night, the longest running show on British television. However, music lovers and astronomers alike may be unaware that there are several other, more direct links between Sibelius and astronomy. He clearly had a strong interest in the field – indeed, he may even have considered it as a career, largely though the influence of his Uncle, Pehr Sibelius, who was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer. There is evidence to indicate that several of his compositions, spanning his career from an early violin sonata to the opening theme of the 7th Symphony, were inspired by astronomical concepts. Research on these and other connections has been published in two recent papers, available for download here:

Sibelius and Astronomy: Cosmic Connections (published by the international SibeliusOne society)
Sibelius and Astronomy: Beyond The Sky at Night (published by Astronomy & Geophysics)


Cygnus OB2 no. 12: A Most Peculiar Star

But for the obscuring effect of interstellar dust, the 10th magnitude star Cygnus OB2 no. 12 would be one of the brightest stars in the night time sky. For more than 60 years, since the earliest studies of this region, investigators have been puzzled by the surprising fact that one of the most luminous stars in our Galaxy happens by chance to lie behind a local concentration of interstellar matter that adds several magnitudes to the visual extinction compared with its siblings in this young star cluster. In a new study published today in Astrophysical Journal, Doug Whittet reassesses the nature of the dust in the line of sight. In particular, this research seeks to test the oft-held assumption that the dust toward Cygnus OB2 no. 12 is prototypical of the “diffuse” interstellar medium where H is predominantly atomic rather than molecular and conditions inhibit the growth of icy mantles on the dust grains.

It is shown that the excess relative to other cluster members occurs in translucent clumps within an extensive network of clouds in the region. Attenuation of the ambient radiation field is sufficient in the cores of the clumps to support the presence of gas-phase molecules, but not to sustain detectable ice formation. In general, the optical properties of dust in the clumps are, indeed, closely similar to those observed in typical diffuse interstellar material, with the notable exception of an unusually low value for the wavelength of maximum polarization. The implied enhancement of polarization by small grains is attributed to increased alignment efficiency in an enhanced magnetic field. This caveat apart, the results of the current work provide reassurance that Cygnus OB2 no. 12 is, indeed, an appropriate choice for studies that target diffuse and translucent phases of the ISM.