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

A 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 astronomy. 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.

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: