Celebrating RPI’s contributions to space exploration

From the earliest beginnings of the National Space and Aeronautics Administration in 1958, Rensselaer graduates, faculty, and students have made their mark on the development of space exploration in the United States. The New York Center for Astrobiology and its members are amongst the many Rensselaer programs and people that have enriched and continue to enrich the field of space research. Some of them are described here.

Inside Rensselaer magazine features new NASA Exobiology funding

A new grant from the NASA Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology Program is featured in the September 2010 issue of the Inside Rensselaer magazine. The grant will enable us to expand our search for prebiotic molecules in regions of interstellar clouds where stars and planetary systems are being formed. The research will be a collaboration between the New York Center for Astrobiology and groups at NASA Ames Research Center, the Ohio State University, and the University of Missouri – St. Louis.

A New Study of Carbon Monoxide Depletion: Gas versus Ice

CO is a vital molecule in astrochemistry. It is the second most common molecule in interstellar space after molecular hydrogen (which is much harder to detect), and millimeter-wave observations of gaseous CO are used extensively to map molecular material. CO is also a major repository for the biologically important chemical elements carbon and oxygen in the clouds, and its ability to participate in chemical reactions is the key to synthesis of complex organic molecules that might accumulate into new planetary systems and provide a resource for the origin of life.

In a recent paper published in Astrophysical Journal, we have studied the distribution of CO between the gaseous and solid phases of an interstellar cloud. It has long been known that CO tends to freeze out onto dust grains in the coldest regions of the interstellar medium, but the degree of depletion (i.e., the fraction of CO frozen onto the dust relative to the total amount of CO) has been difficult to quantify. In a collaboration between teams at  RPI and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we have addressed this problem by comparing observations of ices made at infrared wavelengths with observations of gas made at radio wavelengths in the same lines of sight toward the Taurus Dark Cloud. We find that the depletion increases rapidly with the total quantity of dust, and exceeds 60% toward the densest cores. We show that it is plausible for such high levels of depletion to be reached in dense cores on timescales of about 6oo,ooo years, comparable with their expected lifetimes. Dispersal of cores during star formation may be effective in maintaining observable levels of gaseous CO on the longer timescales (a few million years) estimated for the age of the cloud.

Workshop Without Walls: The Organic Continuum from the ISM to the Early Solar System

The NASA Astrobiology Institute is hosting a “Workshop Without Walls” on March 11 and 12, 2010. The workshop is being co-organized by Doug Whittet (New York Center for Astrobiology at RPI) and George Cody (Carnegie Institute of Washington).  It will feature presentations of cutting-edge science on subjects spanning the cosmic evolution of molecular organic complexity, from small molecule formation in interstellar clouds, to organic reactions and inventories in protoplanetary disks, to organic inventories in outer and inner solar system primitive bodies. Speakers have expertise ranging from observational astronomy, mathematical and astrochemical modeling and laboratory astrophysics to meteoritics, comets, and more.  The goal is to foster new interdisciplinary collaborations across the community.  This workshop is also a test of how to best use the advanced virtual communications capabilities of NAI to initiate greater cross-team awareness and dialog on a focused research area well represented across the NAI. What we learn from this will inform the greater community.