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.
Star formation in the vicinity of the supermassive black hole at the Galactic Centre
Dr. Mark Wardle, Macquarie University
The disruptive tidal field near supermassive black holes overcomes the self-gravity of objects that are less dense than the Roche density. This was once expected to suppress star formation within several parsecs of Sgr A*, the four million solar mass black hole at the centre of the Galaxy. It has since become apparent that things are not this simple: Sgr A* is surrounded by a sub-parsec-scale orbiting disk of massive stars, indicating a star formation event occurred a few million years ago. And on parsec scales, star formation seems to be happening now: there are proplyd candidates and protostellar outflow candidates, as well as methanol and water masers that in the galactic disk would be regarded as sure-fire signatures of star formation. In this talk, I shall consider how star formation can occur so close to Sgr A*.
The stellar disk may be created through the partial capture of a molecular cloud as it swept through the inner few parsecs of the galaxy and temporarily engulfed Sgr A*. This rather naturally creates a disk of gas with the steep surface density profile of the present stellar disk. The inner 0.04 pc is so optically thick that it cannot fragment, instead accreting onto Sgr A* in a few million years; meanwhile the outer disk fragments and creates the observed stellar disk. The isolated young stellar objects found at larger distances, on the other hand, can be explained by stabilisation of clouds or cloud cores by the high external pressure that permeates the inner Galaxy. A virial analysis shows that clouds are indeed tidally disrupted within 0.5 pc of Sgr A*, but outside this the external pressure allows self-gravitating clouds to survive, providing the raw material for ongoing star formation.
Characterizing the oscillatory response of the chromosphere during solar flares
Laurel Farris; NMSU Astronomy Department
Quasi-periodic pulsations (QPPs) are observed in the emission of solar flares over a wide range of wavelengths,
particularly in the radio and hard x-ray regimes where non-thermal emission dominates. These pulsations are
considered to be an intrinsic feature of flares, yet the exact mechanism that triggers them remains unclear.
There have been reports of an increase in the oscillatory power at 3-minute periods (the local acoustic
cutoff frequency) in the solar chromosphere associated with flaring events. I propose to investigate the
chromospheric response to flares by inspecting the spatial and temporal onset and evolution of the 3-minute
oscillatory power, along with any QPP patterns that may appear in chromospheric emission. The analysis
will be extended to multiple flares, and will include time before, during, and after the main event. To test
initial methods, the target of interest was the well-studied 2011 February 15 X-class flare. Data from two
instruments on board the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) were used in the preliminary study, including
continuum images from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) and UV images at 1600 and 1700
Angstroms from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA). Later, spectroscopic data from the Interface
Region Imaging Spectrometer (IRIS) will be used to examine velocity patterns in addition to intensity.
The Circumstellar Disks and Binary Companions of Be Stars
Drew Chojnowski, NMSU
Tremendous progress has been made over the past two decades toward understanding Be stars, but a number of key aspects of them remain enigmatic. The unsolved mysteries include identification of the mechanism responsible for disk formation, the reason this mechanism occasionally turns off or on unexpectedly, the source of viscosity in the circumstellar disks, and the cause of slowly precessing density perturbations in the disks of many or most Be stars. On a deeper level, the origin of Be stars’ near-critical rotation is unknown, with one possible explanation being spin-up due to interaction with a binary companion. A better understanding of these stars is needed, with a particular focus on high-mass binaries being warranted in the age of gravitational wave astronomy. In this dissertation, I will extend the knowledge and understanding of Be stars through a series of three projects. First, I will present and describe the largest ever homogeneous, spectroscopic sample of Be stars to date. I will then focus on investigation of a rare class of Be stars found in binary systems with hot, low mass companions. The second project will present detailed characterization and modeling of HD~55606, a newly discovered member of this class. Finally, I will discuss the results of spectroscopic monitoring of seven newly discovered systems and establish or place limits on the orbital parameters of the binary components.
Metal Absorption in the Circumgalactic Medium During the Epoch of Reionization
Caitlin Doughty, NMSU
The characteristics of metal absorption arising from the circumgalactic medium of galaxies have been demonstrated to be related to conditions in the galaxy which sourced them, as well as to the ambient ultraviolet background. I propose a three- pronged thesis in order to better understand and utilize these relationships. First, I will explore whether the spectral energy distributions of binary stars, incorporated into a custom version of GADGET-3, can explain the discrepancy between observed and simulated absorber statistics. Second, I will study the relationship between neu- tral oxygen absorbers and the neutral hydrogen fraction in simulated quasar sight- lines and relate the results to observations of neutral oxygen at z ≥ 4.0. Third, I will study the relationships between the emissive properties of galaxies, stemming from their nebular gas, and the metal absorbers which they source. Taken as a whole, this thesis will improve the ability of cosmological simulations to reproduce realistic metal absorption, probe the local progress and topology of reionization, and under- stand what emissive galaxy traits we expect at z > 5 based on observations of metal absorbers.
Starless clumps and the earliest phases of high-mass star formation in the Milky Way
Brian Svoboda, NRAO Jansky Fellow
High-mass stars are key to regulating the interstellar medium, star formation activity, and overall evolution of galaxies, but their formation remains an open problem in astrophysics. In order to understand the physical conditions during the earliest phases of high-mass star formation, I will present observational studies we have carried out on dense starless clump candidates (SCCs) that show no signatures of star formation activity. We identify 2223 SCCs from the 1.1 mm Bolocam Galactic Plane Survey, systematically analyse their physical properties, and show that the starless phase is not represented by a single timescale, but evolves more rapidly with increasing clump mass. To investigate the sub-structure in SCCs at high spatial resolution, we investigate the 12 most high-mass SCCs within 5 kpc using ALMA. We find previously undetected low-luminosity protostars in 11 out of 12 SCCs, fragmentation equal to the thermal Jeans length of the clump, and no starless cores exceeding 30 solar masses. While uncertainties remain concerning the star formation efficiency in this sample, these observational facts are consistent with models where high-mass stars form from initially low- to intermediate-mass protostars that accrete most of their mass from the surrounding clump. I will also present on-going research studying gas inflow signatures with GBT/Argus and ALMA, and the dense core mass function with the JVLA.
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An Observer’s Examination of the Circumgalactic Medium using Cosmological Simulations
Rachel Marra, NMSU
A significant aspect to understanding galaxy evolution is having an understanding of the intricacies involving the inflow and outflow of baryons onto a galaxy. Gas needs to accrete onto the galaxy in order for star formation to occur, while stellar winds, supernovae, and radiation pressure result in the outflow of gas from the galaxy. The diffuse region around the galaxy that has gas from interstellar medium (ISM) inflows and intergalactic medium (IGM) outflows interacting is the circumgalactic medium (CGM). Studying the CGM will help us learn about the baryon cycle and give us a better understanding of galactic evolution.
The primary method to studying the CGM is through absorption, as the density is too low to detect emission. Studying these absorption features allows us to learn about the physical properties of the gas giving rise to the absorption. Other than through observations, cosmological simulations play a large role in how we learn about the CGM of galaxies. Using MOCKSPEC, the Quasar Absorption Line Analysis Pipeline, to create mock quasar sightlines through the VELA simulation suite of galaxies, we use the absorption features seen in the sightlines to study the CGM in the simulations. While there are many ions that are used to study the CGM, we focus on OVI.
We intend to study how effective our methods are for studying the CGM with both observations and simulations. The covering fraction of OVI for a sample of observed galaxies will be compared with the covering fraction that is found from a selection of LOS that probe simulated, Milky-Way type galaxies. This tells us if the simulations can reproduce the observations, and if they do not, we can gain insights as to why the simulations do not match observed data. We will also investigate if the metallicity calculated from an observed absorption feature reflects the actual metallicity of the probed gas by using mock sightlines through simulations. Additionally, we will do a comparison of different methodologies used to study the CGM in simulations, to determine if using mock quasar sightlines is a more realistic and accurate method to compare to observed data.