An excellent article published today in the New York Times gives an in-depth discussion of the new results of the Curiosity Mission, including the discovery of significant water in the surface minerals, reported in Science and described in a previous post. Click here to link to the New York Times article.
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…
The first scoop of soil analyzed by the analytical suite in the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover reveals that fine materials on the surface of the planet contain several percent water by weight. The results were published today in Science as one article in a five-paper special section on the Curiosity mission. RPI Dean of Science Laurie Leshin is the study’s lead author. “One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Leshin. “About 2% of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.” The sample also released significant carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds when heated. Read more…
New stars and planetary systems are born within the cold, dark regions of interstellar clouds. To help us better understand the origins of our own solar system, and the myriad of others now known to exist, astronomers study these clouds at the evolutionary phase immediately preceding stellar birth. A good example is the object known as Lynds 183, a small, compact dark cloud known from observations made at radio wavelengths to be rich in gaseous interstellar molecules such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, methanol and hydrogen cyanide, all existing at temperatures as low as 10 degrees Kelvin. A new study published in the September 10, 2013 issue of the Astrophysical Journal helps to expand our picture of the cloud by focusing on the solids – silicate dust and ices – that are potential raw materials for future planets. A team led by Doug Whittet and Charles Poteet at RPI used infrared data obtained from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii to search for the spectroscopic fingerprints of these material. They found that the silicate particles serve as nucleation centers for the growth of ices that contain not only H2O but also CO and CO2 (dry ice), and that this can occur in the outer layers of the cloud where there is just enough shielding from the harsh environment of space to allow the ices to survive. These results add to the growing evidence that the water and other volatiles needed to form habitable environments on earth-like planets are easily formed at the lowest temperatures in prestellar clouds. When stars are born inside them, the resulting increase in temperature and radiation exposure can drive a different kind of chemistry that can form complex organic molecules out of these simple ices.
RPI is pleased to welcome Dr. Karyn Rogers as a member of the New York Center for Astrobiology and as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Rogers’ research expertise and interests concern geochemical modeling to evaluate water-rock-microbial interactions, microbial metabolic diversity in modern and ancient hydrothermal systems, the exploration of microbial activity at extreme temperatures and pressures, and the potential for life on Mars. She received her Ph.D. from Washington University and is joining us from the Carnegie Institute of Washington.
This summer RPI celebrated its 6th successive year as a host to the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp. Again, the program was focused on astrobiology, with 50 campers from Albany-area schools engaged in designing future missions to Mars to search for life on the red planet. For further information and images, check out this RPI news story and the Camp’s very own Facebook page.
The 5th annual Astrobiology Teachers Academy was held at RPI, July 22-25, and attended by 16 high school and middle school science teachers from the Capital District and elsewhere in New York State. The teachers worked with faculty from the New York Center for Astrobiology and with education experts from the Association for the Cooperative Advancement of Science Education to develop ideas, strategies and resources to integrate astrobiological themes into their classrooms. The intrinsic fascination of astrobiology and the search for life on other planets continues to provide a highly effective means of engaging the students in the STEM disciplines. Attendees included 8 returning teachers who gave presentations on their past activities and engaged in mentoring those new to the academy.
See the Academy’s facebook page for further information.
Congratulations to Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science at RPI and member of the New York Center for Astrobiology, for the award of the honorary Doctorate of Science degree from the University of Chicago at its 515th Convocation on June 15, 2013.
Astrobiology research features prominently in the new RPI School of Science brochure, with sections highlighting the undergraduate research projects of Varun Bajaj (with Doug Whittet) and Sebastian Mergelsburg (with Bruce Watson).
Searching for Life
Is there life elsewhere in the universe? This question lies at the heart of Rensselaer’s NASA-funded New York Center for Astrobiology. “We’re interested in how the matter that you need to make planetary life came to be: Where did it come from and how was it formed? And since it happened here in our solar system, is it likely to happen elsewhere as well?” said Doug Whittet, center director and Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy. Professor Whittet uses the spectrum of light coming from dust clouds surrounding young stars or in interstellar space to determine what molecules may be present in the clouds. Varun Bajaj, a student of physics, astronomy, and electronic arts, joined Whittet’s research group after taking his Origin of Life class. “Astrobiology uses many of the sciences — chemistry, biology, physics — and it leads to results that help explain the evolution of life.” Bajaj, who turned data from the Spitzer Space Telescope into an infrared spectrum of an interstellar cloud, said he chose Rensselaer for its emphasis on science, math, and engineering, and also for the accessibility of undergraduate research: “The thing that drew me to RPI was how in-depth the research opportunities are, and also how wide it is across all the sciences. You have an endless stream of opportunities as an undergraduate.”
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a telescope that flies on a specially modified jet airliner. Cruising at 40,000 feet above sea level, SOFIA is above most of the atmospheric gases, especially water vapor, that inhibit astronomical observations from the ground. RPI postdoc Daniel Angerhausen and Physics professor Jon Morse will be using SOFIA to study the properties of exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy – with the long term goal of discovering whether any of them could be hosts for life. Click here for full story.
Angerhausen and Morse are the second RPI-led group to be awarded observing time on this prestigious facility. Doug Whittet and colleagues are using SOFIA to study the chemical composition of planetary matter at a much earlier phase, in the interstellar clouds and disks of material that will eventually coalesce to form new planetary systems around stars similar to (but much younger than) our Sun. Click here for full story.
Alien worlds resembling giant eyeballs might exist around red dwarf stars, and researchers are now proposing experiments to simulate these distant worlds and see how capable they are of supporting life. When a planet orbits a star very closely, the gravitational pull of the star can force the world to become tidally locked with it. “This means that they always show the same side to their star just as our moon does to the Earth, which means they have one permanent day and one permanent night side” explained Daniel Angerhausen, an astronomer and astrobiologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of a new paper on these planets in Astrobiology Magazine. Click here for more.
Click the links below for press releases and other highlights from the New York Center for Astrobiology for the calendar year 2012: