New Annual Reviews on Cosmic Ices and Grain Alignment

The newly published 2015 volume of Annual Reviews of Astronomy & Astrophysics contains two review articles of great relevance to researchers interested in the astrochemistry and astrophysics of interstellar dust.

Observations of the icy universe by Adwin Boogert, Perry Gerakines and Doug Whittet
(link to e-print)
Abstract: Freeze-out of the gas-phase elements onto cold grains in dense interstellar and circumstellar media builds up ice mantles consisting of molecules that are mostly formed in situ (H2O, NH3, CO2, CO, CH3OH, and more). This review summarizes the detected infrared spectroscopic ice features and compares the abundances across Galactic, extragalactic, and Solar System environments. A tremendous amount of information is contained in the ice band profiles. Laboratory experiments play a critical role in the analysis of the observations. Strong evidence is found for distinct ice formation stages, separated by CO freeze-out at high densities. The ice bands have proven to be excellent probes of the thermal history of their environment. The evidence for the long-held idea that processing of ices by energetic photons and cosmic rays produces complex molecules is weak. Recent state-of-the-art observations show promise for much progress in this area with planned infrared facilities.

Interstellar Dust Grain Alignment by B-G Andersson, Alex Lazarian and John Vaillancourt
Abstract: Interstellar polarization at optical-to-infrared wavelengths is known to arise from asymmetric dust grains aligned with the magnetic field. This effect provides a potentially powerful probe of magnetic field structure and strength if the details of the grain alignment can be reliably understood. Theory and observations have recently converged on a quantitative, predictive description of interstellar grain alignment based on radiative processes. The development of a general, analytical model for this radiative alignment torque (RAT) theory has allowed specific, testable predictions for realistic interstellar conditions. We outline the theoretical and observational arguments in favor of RAT alignment, as well as reasons the “classical” paramagnetic alignment mechanism is unlikely to work, except possibly for the very smallest grains. With further detailed characterization of the RAT mechanism, grain alignment and polarimetry promise to not only better constrain the interstellar magnetic field but also provide new information on the dust characteristics.

RPI Physics junior receives the James B. Willet Scholarship Award for research in Astrophysics

Emily 008

Rensselaer junior and Physics major Emily Wislowski has been selected by the Universities Space Research Association as the recipient of the 2014 James B. Willett Educational Memorial Scholarship Award. Wislowski was selected from a large number of applicants in a very competitive selection. She received the award today following an RPI Astrophysics Seminar talk on her research on organic molecules in sites of stellar birth. The award was presented by Emily’s research adviser, Doug Whittet. The award honors the late James B. Willet (1940-1998), a noted NASA astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who also served as the manager of the Galileo mission to Jupiter.

Link to USRA award citation.

“FameLab: Exploring Earth and Beyond” event at Rensselaer


The School of Science at RPI, in collaboration with the 2014 Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon), hosted the kickoff to Season 3 of the science communications event “FameLab: Exploring Earth and Beyond” on July 29. Graduate students from around the country gathered to learn how to communicate their scientific research in a way that still includes the technical aspects while making it relatable to a general audience. As part of the process participants developed a three-minute, Powerpoint-free presentation of their chosen topic. A preliminary round was held in the morning with a communications workshop following in the afternoon. The field was narrowed down to nine finalists who competed for the title of FameLab champion in front of a public audience at the EMPAC Theater. In the end, Graham Lau, who discussed his near-death research experience with an unstable sulphurous glacier, was named the winner. Breana Hashman, Danny Barringer, and Rensselaer graduate student Charles Martin were selected as wildcards. The winner of the RPI heat, as well as a few select wildcards, will proceed to compete for the national title in Washington, D.C. FameLab is sponsored by NASA in the U.S. in collaboration with the British Council.

RPI Alumni on the International Space Station

Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, who earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering from RPI in 1987, spoke with students at his alma mater via Skype from the International Space Station. Read the full story here.

Mastracchio returns from the ISS on May 12. Astronaut Reid Wiseman, who graduated from Rensselaer in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in computer and systems engineering, travels to the ISS on May 28. Read the full story here.

NYCA Astrobiologist Suzanne Baldwin appointed to an Endowed Professorship

Suzanne Baldwin, a renowned geologist and thermochronologist, and a co-investigator of the New York Center for Astrobiology, has been named the inaugural Michael G. and Susan T. Thonis Professor of Earth Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. Through the generosity of Michael Thonis ’72 and his wife, Susan, the newly established professorship will provide additional support for Professor Baldwin’s research program.

In her laboratory, Professor Baldwin investigates the properties minerals and rocks to determine the thermal evolution of the Earth’s lithosphere and planetary materials. Rock samples from around the world and beyond are collected for this research, including from Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and the Moon (Apollo 16 and 17). Her research in astrobiology includes investigation of terrestrial analogs of Martian minerals to test their ability to serve as biomarkers.

“Suzanne epitomizes excellence in science,” says George M. Langford, dean of The College of Arts and Sciences. “Not only does she perform cutting-edge research with a talented team of researchers, she’s also committed to education, and our students benefit from her outstanding accomplishments in the field of petrology. We are thankful to her for paving the way for future scientists, especially aspiring female scientists, and I am pleased to appoint her the inaugural Thonis professor.”

Read the full story here…

2014 Astrobiology Graduate Conference Announcement

The 2014 Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon; website will be hosted by the New York Center for Astrobiology and held on the RPI campus July 27-31. The organizers are currently holding a competition to design a logo for the meeting. Plans are also in place for two additional events in association with AbGradCon: the fifth annual Astrobiology Research Focus Group (July 25-27, to be held at the Darrin Freshwater Institute on Lake George), and a regional heat of FameLab. Click here to visit the AbGradCon FaceBook group.

The primary role of AbGradCon is to stimulate the future of astrobiology research by bringing together, in a unique setting, graduate students and postdocs within 2 years of finishing their PhD. In so doing, it strives to create and strengthen interdisciplinary and international networks of early-career astrobiologists who will be leaders of the field in the years to come. The conference is unique in that it is an entirely student-led meeting, from the organization to the presentations. The pressures of typical scientific meetings are alleviated to provide an intellectually stimulating yet comfortable environment in which early-career astrobiologists meet, share research and exchange ideas. AbGradCon also helps to foster leadership skills in the next generation of scientists by giving them experience in organizing scientific meetings.

Summer Science Camp highlighted on “The Best of our Knowledge”

The National Public Media show The Best of our Knowledge, produced by WAMC Northeast Public Radio, has a long association with the New York Center for Astrobiology, airing regular broadcasts on research and education in astrobiology over the past 15 years (see this previous post). The show airing this week is a full-length feature highlighting the 2013 ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, in which teams of middle-school students designed missions to search for life on Mars. It includes interviews with students from the winning team and their parents, and with Professor Wayne Roberge representing the NYCA team. The camp is a vital component of the EPO program of the NYCA, and this show does an excellent job of showcasing its significance and the positive impact it had on the students that participated. The show is available on line at:

New York Center for Astrobiology: Highlights of the year 2013

It’s been a productive year! Here is a brief list of highlights with links.

Personnel recruitment, honors and awards:

Education and Public Outreach:


Astrobiology Strategic Planning Webinar: Origin of Organic Monomers

The Astrobiology community is currently engaged in developing a strategic plan for future research and mission planning, the outcome of which will be a new Astrobiology Roadmap. As part of this activity, Doug Whittet (RPI/NYCA), Jamie Elsila (NASA Goddard) and Greg Springsteen (Furman University) co-presented a webinar on September 26, 2013, discussing the ideas in a white paper they coauthored on the Origin of Organic Monomers. The presentation is now available as a YouTube video (click here for the link).

RPI astrobiologist flies SOFIA to observe exoplanets

Daniel Angerhausen, a postdoc in the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, has fulfilled his quest to conduct research aboard NASA’s flying observatory, SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). From anticipation in April, to disappointment in May, he finally got to fly SOFIA on September 26. “So I spent the night at 42,000 feet on a billion dollar NASA aircraft observing an alien world 63 light-years away. How was your night?” tweeted Daniel the morning after his first flight. Click here for the full story.

Rensselaer researchers propose new theory to explain seeds of life in asteroids

Today the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is cold and dry, but scientists have long known that warm, wet conditions, suitable to formation of some biomolecules, the building blocks of life, once prevailed. One theory of the origin of life proposes that some of the biomolecules that formed on asteroids may have reached the surfaces of planets, and contributed to the origin of life as we know it. A new look at the early solar system introduces a new explanation of how biomolecules were once able to form inside asteroids. Researchers Wayne Roberge and Ray Menzel of the New York Center for Astrobiology propose a new theory — based on a realistic model to account for the effect of magnetic fields and solar winds in the early solar system — to explain the ancient heating of the asteroid belt. Click here for more…