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.
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
Observations of Solar System Bodies with the VLA and ALMA
Dr. Bryan Butler, NRAO
Observations of solar system bodies at wavelengths from submm to meter wavelengths provide important and unique information about those bodies. Such observations probe to depths unreachable at other wavelengths – typically of order 10-20 wavelengths for bodies with solid surfaces, and as deep as tens of bars for those with thick atmospheres (the giant planets). In the past five years, two instruments have been commissioned which have revolutionized the ability to make very sensitive, high-resolution observations at these wavelengths: the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA). I will present a discussion of results over the past five years from observations from both the VLA and ALMA. These include observations of the atmospheres of all of the giant planets, the rings of Saturn, and the surfaces of many icy bodies in the outer solar system. I will also present plans for the Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA), the next step for millimeter to centimeter wavelength interferometry.
Giant Planet Shielding of the Inner Solar System Revisited: Blending Celestial Mechanics with Advanced Computation
Dr. William Newman, UCLA
The Earth has sustained during the last billion years as many as five catastrophic collisions with asteroids and comets which led to widespread species extinctions. Our own atmosphere was literally blown away 4.5 billion years ago by a collision with a Mars-sized impactor. However, collisions with comets originating in the outer solar system accreted much of the present-day atmosphere. Relatively advanced life on our planet is the beneficiary of a number of impact events during Earth’s history which built our atmosphere without destroying a large fraction of terrestrial life. Using very high precision Monte Carlo integration methods to explore the orbital evolution over hundreds of millions of years followed by the application of celestial mechanical techniques, the presentation will explain directly how Earth was shielded by the combined influence of Jupiter and Saturn, assuring that only 1 in 100,000 potential collisions with the Earth will materialize.