Characterization of Biosignatures within Geologic Samples Analyzed using a Suite of in situ Techniques
Kyle Uckert, NMSU
I investigated the biosignature detection capabilities of several in situ techniques to evaluate their potential to
detect the presence of extant or extinct life on other planetary surfaces. These instruments included: a laser desorption
time-of- flight mass spectrometer (LD-TOF-MS), an acousto-optic tunable filter (AOTF) infrared (IR) point spectrometer, a
laser-induced breakdown spectrometer (LIBS), X-ray diffraction (XRD)/X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and scanning electron
microscopy (SEM)/energy dispersive X-Ray spectroscopy (EDS). I measured the IR reflectance spectra of several speleothems
in caves in situ to detect the presence of biomineralization. Microorganisms (such as those that may exist on other solar
system bodies) mediate redox reactions to obtain energy for growth and reproduction, producing minerals such as
carbonates, metal oxides, and sulfates as waste products. Microbes occasionally become entombed in their mineral
excrement, essentially acting as a nucleation site for further crystal growth. This process produces minerals with a
crystal lattice distinct from geologic precipitation, detectable with IR reflectance spectroscopy. Using a suite of
samples collected from three subterranean environments, along with statistical analyses including principal component
analysis, I measured subsurface biosignatures associated with these biomineralization effects, including the presence of
trace elements, morphological characteristics, organic molecules, and amorphous crystal structures.
I also explored the optimization of a two-step LD-TOF-MS (L2MS) for the detection of organic molecules and other
biosignatures. I focused my efforts on characterizing the L2MS desorption IR laser wavelength dependence on organic
detection sensitivity in an effort to optimize the detection of high mass (≤100 Da) organic peaks. I analyzed samples
with an IR reflectance spectrometer and an L2MS with a tunable desorption IR laser whose wavelength range (2.7 – 3.45
microns) overlaps that of our IR spectrometer (1.6 – 3.6 microns), and discovered a IR resonance enhancement effect. A
correlation between the maximum IR absorption of organic functional group and mineral vibrational transitions – inferred
from the IR spectrum – and the optimal IR laser configuration for organic detection using L2MS indicates that IR
spectroscopy may be used to inform the optimal L2MS IR laser wavelength for organic detection. This work suggests that a
suite of instruments, particularly LD-TOF-MS and AOTF IR spectroscopy, has strong biosignature detection potential on a
future robotic platform for investigations of other planetary surfaces or subsurfaces.
Extinction mapping with LEGUS
The study of star formation and galaxy evolution in nearby galaxies depends on obtaining accurate stellar photometry in those galaxies. However, dust in the galaxies hinders our ability to obtain accurate stellar photometry, particularly in star-forming galaxies that have the highest concentrations of dust. This proposal presents a thesis project to develop a method for generating extragalactic extinction maps using photometry of massive stars from the Hubble Space Telescope. This photometry spans nearly 50 galaxies observed by the Legacy Extragalactic Ultraviolet Survey (LEGUS). The derived extinction maps can be used to correct other stars and Halpha maps (from the Halpha LEGUS) for extinction, and will be used to constrain changes in the dust-to-gas ratio across the galaxy sample and in different star formation rate, metallicity and morphological environments. Previous studies have found links between galaxy metallicty and the dust-to-gas mass ratio. The relationship between these two quantities can be used to constrain chemical evolution models.
Selected galaxies will also be compared to IR-derived dust maps for comparison to recent M31 results from Dalcanton et al. (2015) which found a minimum factor of 2 inconsistency between their extinction-derived maps and emission-derived maps from Draine et al. (2014).
The NMSU Department of Astronomy will hold an observatory open house at the NMSU campus observatory at 8 p.m.Friday, Sept. 9. Astronomy personnel on hand will be Chris Churchill and graduate assistants Xander Thelen, Trevor Picard and Jacob Vander Vliet.
Guests can view Mars and Saturn together in the evening sky in the constellation of Scorpio. Telescopes will also have the center of the Milky Way Galaxy in view, and in this region there are many beautiful star clusters and globular clusters (tight groups of millions of stars). High in the sky, viewers will see the constellation Vega with its double-double star system and the famous ring nebula, which is the remnants of a dying star much like our own sun. The moon will be in the phase called first quarter and will make a wonderful sight.
Contact the NMSU Astronomy Department at 575-646-4438 with questions. Everyone is welcome to come and spend an evening of stargazing. Admission is free and children are especially welcome to attend.
For information on what is up in September, go here: http://whatsouttonight.com/Resources/2016SepSkyWOT.pdf