Evolving Perspectives on the Atmosphere and Climate of Mars
Dr. Richard Zurek, JPL
Abstract: The planet Mars has both fascinated and tantalized humankind since the invention of the telescope and now well into the age of exploration from space. The first of three waves of space missions to Mars were flyby spacecraft that returned images of a heavily cratered planet with a thin atmosphere, suggesting Mars was more like the Moon than an older Earth. However, Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, found vast channel and valley networks carved into its surface, as well as towering volcanoes, suggesting that ancient Mars was once much more Earth-like. Subsequent missions have landed on the planet and new orbiters have probed the planet at ever increasing spatial resolution and spectral coverage. As a result of the latest round of space exploration, Mars is revealed to be a complex, diverse planet— one whose climate has changed dramatically over time from an ancient atmosphere where water was active on its surface to a drier, thinner atmosphere shaped by periodic ice ages, to the present atmosphere where dynamic change continues today.
Dr. Zurek is the Chief Scientist in the Mars Program Office, Project Scientist, MRO.
The Thirty Meter Telescope: The Next Generation Ground Based Optical/InfraRed Observatory
Dr. Warren Skidmore, Thirty Meter Telescope Corp.
Abstract: After a construction status update, I will describe how the telescope design was developed to support a broad range of observing capabilities and how the observatory is being engineered. I’ll discuss some of the observational capabilities that the Thirty Meter Telescope will provide and some of the areas of study that will benefit from the TMT’s capabilities, specifically synergistic areas with new and future proposed astronomical facilities. Finally I will describe the avenues through which astronomers can have some input in the planning of the project and potential NSF partnership, prioritizing the development of 2nd generation instruments and directing the scientific aims for the observatory.
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 Magnetic Mid-life Crisis of the Sun
Dr. Travis Metcalfe, Space Sciences Institute
After decades of effort, the solar activity cycle is exceptionally well characterized but it remains poorly understood. Pioneering work at the Mount Wilson Observatory demonstrated that other sun-like stars also show regular activity cycles, and suggested two possible relationships between the rotation rate and the length of the cycle. Neither of these relationships correctly describe the properties of the Sun, a peculiarity that demands explanation. Recent discoveries have started to shed light on this issue, suggesting that the Sun’s rotation rate and magnetic field are currently in a transitional phase that occurs in all middle-aged stars. We have recently identified the manifestation of this magnetic transition in the best available data on stellar cycles. The results suggest that the solar cycle may be growing longer on stellar evolutionary timescales, and that the cycle might disappear sometime in the next 0.8-2.4 Gyr. Future tests of this hypothesis will come from ground-based activity monitoring of Kepler targets that span the magnetic transition, and from asteroseismology with the TESS mission to determine precise masses and ages for bright stars with known cycles.
Asteroseismology of Red Giants: The Detailed Modeling of Red Giants in Eclipsing Binary Systems
Jean McKeever, NMSU
Asteroseismology is an invaluable tool that allows one to peer into the inside of a star and know its fundamental stellar properties with relative ease. There has been much exploration of solar-like oscillations within red giants with recent advances in technology, leading to new innovations in observing. The Kepler mission, with its 4-year observations of a single patch of sky, has opened the floodgates on asteroseismic studies. Binary star systems are also an invaluable tool for their ability to provide independent constraints on fundamental stellar parameters such as mass and radius. The asteroseismic scaling laws link observables in the light curves of stars to the physical parameters in the star, providing a unique tool to study large populations of stars quite easily. In this work we present our 4-year radial velocity observing program to provide accurate dynamical masses for 16 red giants in eclipsing binary systems. From this we find that asteroseismology overestimates the mass and radius of red giants by 15% and 5% respectively. We further attempt to model the pulsations of a few of these stars using stellar evolution and oscillation codes. The goal is to determine which masses are correct and if there is a physical cause for the discrepancy in asteroseismic masses. We find there are many challenges to modeling evolved stars such as red giants and we address a few of the major concerns. These systems are some of the best studied systems to date and further exploration of their asteroseismic mysteries is inevitable.