[Christina's blog] The Life of a Scientist: Astrobiology in Iceland, Parts III and IV

This is Parts III and IV of my blog about doing astrobiology in Iceland. Read parts I and II.


Part III: Field Work: ATP and the search for life in hostile environments

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Icelandic horses (with the most fabulous 80s hair) in front of the Brenninsteinsalda Rhyolite Mountains. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wolsey (PhD Student, Open University, UK).

A key element to the school was the ability to use in-situ techniques to investigate how life can survive hostile environments. Iceland was a great place to find hostile environments (just ask the sheep from the lava cave), and our expert field guides and scientists were prepped to teach us the art of finding life. One method for looking for life in volcanic and glacial environments is to detect the generic biomarker, Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the primary source of free energy in all living cells. ATP is produced only in living cells during photosynthesis and cellular respiration and consumed in cellular processes. It is a key indicator of cellular activity, and a major biomarker when trying to find habitable conditions for life, since all known living organisms require ATP.

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The road to Mordor… I mean, Landmannalaugar. Photo courtesy of Christina Richey

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[Christina's blog] The Life of a Scientist: Astrobiology in Iceland, Parts I and II

The Nordic-NASA Astrobiology Summer School “Water, Ice and the Origin of Life in the Universe,” was held July 1-15 in Iceland. The school was organized by Wolf Geppert, the director of the Stockholm University Astrobiology Center, and Karen Meech, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Hawai’i. The school participants included 48 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the fields of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and I was lucky enough to be one of those 48 selected. The school consisted of several methods for learning about the origins of life: lecturing from experts, poster sessions for the students, open discussions, excursions, and field work in extreme environments.


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The view from our lecture hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo courtesy of Christina Richey.


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A typical Icelandic country road, lined with sheep. Photo courtesy of Christina Richey.

Part I: Lectures and Open discussions

Over the entire 2 weeks, approximately 40 hours of lecturing occurred. Experts were brought in from each field of interest in astrobiology to discuss topics that could lead to a thorough understanding of the Origin of Life. The first 3 days were spent participating in lectures from experts within the fields of the formation of elements in space, as well as astronomy and planetary science topics. The formation of water and organics is extremely important to life within our Universe, and this topic, from an astrobiological perspective, is well documented and studied in terms of the processes for forming water. Karen Meech gave a public talk on comets, as well as several detailed lectures on comet physics and asteroids to the school participants. Karen’s talk discussed the big unknowns for water on Earth; such as where did the Earth’s water content come from (how much from comets, hydrated asteroids, solar nebula gases, and chemical reactions on Earth) or even how much water is currently here on Earth. Jack Hunter Waite from South West Research Institute discussed icy satellites and highlights from the Cassini-Huygens mission. David Des Marais, a senior scientist at NASA Ames, led lectures on habitable environments and life, as well as future mission and the search for life of Mars. Brown University’s Jim Head instructed us on the ability to use Icelandic geology and terrain as an analog to the Martian surface, as the lack of vegetation and the igneous petrology is of interests to astrobiologists.


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One of our guest lecturers and expert glaciologist, Þorsteinn Þorsteinsson of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, prepping for work on the Solheimajökull glacier, which is the southwestern outlet of the Mýrdalsjökull icecap. Photo courtesy of Sophie Nixon (PhD Student, University of Edinburgh, UK).

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[Christina's blog] The Life of a Scientist: Traveling to ACM 2012, Niigata, Japan

The 2012 Asteroids, Comets, Meteors (ACM) Conference, was held mid-May in Niigata, Japan. The conference brought together approximately 400 scientists from over 30 countries to present observational, experimental, and theoretical results on small bodies (see the group photo below). I presented my experimental work on metal-silicate dust grain analogs and discussed with colleagues astrophysical implications of my laboratory results in preparation for our upcoming publication.

Other work that was presented included several sessions on results from the Dawn Spacecraft’s mission to Vesta, the Japanese (Hayabusa-Itokawa) and NASA (Stardust-Wild 2) sample return missions, as well as planned, upcoming small body missions by the Japanese, ESA, and NASA (including New Horizons, Hayabusa-2, OSIRIS-Rex, and MarcoPolo-R). Additionally, work was presented on space-borne observations of small bodes (AKARI, Herschel, WISE, HST, etc), comet missions, meteorite falls, dynamics, compositional studies, impact processing, surface processing and geology, origins and astrobiology of small bodies, and even human exploration of Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Basically, if you were a scientist who cared about small bodies in our solar system, this was the place to be, and it was a highly productive conference.

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A group photo from ACM 2012. Image courtesy of the ACM conference.

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[Christina's blog] 7 Degrees of NuSTAR…

The NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) launched last week, with a mission goal of studying black holes and their jets of energy, as well as other high-energy objects in our universe (supernovae, compact stars after their explosive deaths, and clusters of galaxies). This is done through using a very unique observatory to study X-ray light. Since NuSTAR focuses X-rays, it requires a long focal length, so the optics must be far away from each other (to achieve a 10 meter focal length). This is done via a unique detector system, optics, and deployable mast, shown in the figure below.

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Credit: JPL/Caltech

As we were watching for updates on the launch of the NuSTAR satellite, I discovered a pleasant surprise. I am a scientist at Goddard in the Astrophysics Science Division (Code 665 to those of you familiar with the code system at GSFC), however, I spend the bulk majority of my time in The Optics Lab here at Goddard Space Flight Center, running my experimental tests of dust grain analogs on equipments that the engineers in the Optics Branch (Code 551) use to test the transmission and reflection properties of different materials. This ranges from coating for new mirrors, to the transmission properties of just about any material you can think of. The head of my lab, Manuel Quijada, is a can-do-it-all guru of materials, and has allowed me to help out on samples that are not necessarily part of my scientific work, but are great for training and very cool to observe unique optical properties with. He informed me that the NuSTAR mirrors were heated at Goddard in another lab, and then sent here, to our lab, for cutting and polishing, as well as testing to ensure the best mirrors were used for the NuSTAR spacecraft. This work was done by a co-op in the Optics Branch, Javier Del Hoyo, who is still here in the lab today. The mirrors, with their unique curvature required for measurements (see the figures below), underwent multiple inspections and testing to ensure they were top quality, then were shipped to Danish Technical University-Space in Copenhagen to be coated with a material suitable for measurements at X-ray wavelengths (Pt/SiC and W/SiC), and then sent to Columbia University, where the precision assemblage of the optics occurred.

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The slumped glass posts are prepared for heating (figure courtesy of M. Quijada and J. Del Hoyo)

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[Christina's blog] Celebrating Science and Engineering in Washington, DC

Please welcome our new guest blogger, Dr. Christina Richey!

Over 3,000 booths, 100 stage shows, a book fair, a career fair, and an estimated 100,000 people each day gathered in one building. At times you’d smell something burning, or you’d hear an explosion followed by squeals of pure excitement. Throngs of people would cheer on races across cornstarch and the occasional astronaut would walk by. All the while folks waited in line to meet people like The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik. In the midst of organized chaos on Saturday and Sunday, I realized one thing: I love science! The USA Science & Engineering Festival was held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on April 28th & 29th and lived up to its claims as “the largest celebration of science and engineering in the USA”. It was, indeed, a large, boisterous celebration.


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Credit: Christina Richey

I was a volunteer scientist at the booth for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in the NASA Pavilion area. For the entire weekend, we had a steady flow of kids and adults visiting to our booth to make star life cycle bookmarks, watch the JWST deployment video, or hold pieces of hardware. All the while they got to learn about the JWST from the scientists and engineers working on the project.

The entrance of the NASA Pavilion area greeted you with the music of Third Rock Radio, America’s Space Radio Station. Once you entered the pavilion area, it was everything NASA squeezed into a hallway of booths. Along with the JWST, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Kepler, Fermi, Dawn, and MESSENGER missions were all represented, as were the Challenger Center, Landsat, the International Space Station (ISS), and many more. Each booth was filled with scientists, engineers, and educators on hand, ready to excite children and adults alike about what we do on a daily basis.

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