ASTID Funds 15 New Projects


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The Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) Program this summer approved 15 proposals for funding, including mission concept studies and concept studies for small payloads and satellites.

The new projects were selected out of 97 proposals submitted in response to the NASA Science Mission Directorate's 2007 Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) solicitation. The new projects range from instruments for astrobiology investigations on future planetary exploration missions to a prototype artificial-gravity platform for small satellites and planetary landers to a nanosatellite designed to search for transiting Earth-like extrasolar planets.

The 15 newly funded projects are:

William Brinckerhoff, Principal Investigator (PI), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: "Miniature laser TOF-MS with reversible ion polarity"

A next-generation laser-desorption time-of-flight mass spectrometer (LD-TOF-MS) will be developed for in-situ astrobiology investigations of the organic and elemental composition of solid-phase samples. This instrument will feature a combined off-axis pulsed ultraviolet laser and optical microscope system to enable interrogation of small spot sizes for focused sample analysis.

Nancy Chanover, PI, New Mexico State University: "Infrared Spectroscopy for In-Situ Organic Detection"

A near-infrared spectral microscope will be developed for astrobiology investigations on future NASA missions to icy satellites in the outer solar system. This small, non-imaging, in-situ acousto-optic tunable filter (AOTF) spectrometer will be designed to prescreen samples for evidence of volatile or refractory organics before analysis by an in-situ instrument such as a mass spectrometer. This project includes the development of a portable unit that can be field tested on Earth.

Brian Drouin, PI, Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "Submillimeter Gas Analysis for Life Detection"

A high-sensitivity gas analyzer will be built with absolute specificity to nearly all gas-phase species. This instrument should be able to determine abundances of previously inseparable and/or indistinguishable trace gases.

Brian Glass, PI, NASA Ames Research Center: "Astrobiology Rotary-Percussive Automated Drill (ARPAD)"

An automated, prototype, rotary-percussive drill system will be designed and built, with the capability of penetrating regolith and ice layers to five meters or greater. The drill will be tested with several kinds of rocks in laboratory-ambient and Mars-analog conditions to develop models of Mars rotary-percussive drilling performance and fault modes. This drill system is conceived to perform core sampling as well.

Daniel Glavin, PI, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: "VAPoR: A Miniature Pyrolysis Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer Prototype for In Situ Investigations in Planetary Astrobiology"

The Volatile Analysis by Pyrolysis of Regolith (VAPoR) instrument concept selected by the NASA Lunar Sortie Science Opportunities (LSSO) Program in 2007 is a miniature pyrolysis mass spectrometer instrument designed to detect volatiles in lunar atmosphere and polar regolith samples. excellent instrument candidate for future in situ astrobiology missions to the lunar poles, comets, asteroids and icy outer solar system satellites. The goal of this ASTID proposal will be to build an end-to-end VAPoR prototype and characterize the performance of the instrument in a relevant ultra-high vacuum environment by analyzing a well characterized set of regolith materials including Apollo 16 lunar soil, Murchison carbonaceous meteorite, and cometary ice analog materials. This ASTID research and development program will reduce several areas of technical risk bringing the VAPoR instrument to Technical Readiness Level 5 for proposal to a future Planetary Astrobiology mission.

Tullis Onstott, PI, Princeton University: "A CRDS for Isotopic Measurement of Martian CH4"

A near-infrared, cavity ring-down spectrometer (CRDS) will be designed, fabricated and tested. The intended function of this instrument is to identify the sources and sinks of martian atmospheric methane and determine whether it is biologically generated or consumed. This instrument should be 1,000 times more sensitive than the TLS to be flown on the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Chad Paavola, PI, NASA Ames Research Center: "Stereospecific sensors for amino acids and carbohydrates in extraterrestrial environments"

The search for organic molecule biomarkers is an important element of the search for extraterrestrial life and the study of prebiotic environments. In research funded by a previous ASTID grant, we developed sensors for amino acids and sugars based on proteins. We propose to radically improve the signal to noise ratio (S/N) of the technology and to focus the amino acid specificities on those most relevant for astrobiology. We will also test the sensing elements in a planar optical waveguide flow cell.

We have developed protein-based sensing elements with S/N of 5-10 and the present goal is > 50. One approach will maximize signal change, the other will utilize the full range of signal change. Sensing elements we have developed use resonance energy transfer to generate signal change that depends on the protein's analyte-dependent change in shape. Substitution of long-lifetime luminescent compounds for organic fluorophore resonant energy donors will improve the signal over background by 50-100 fold. Placing the resonant energy transfer donor on a separate peptide selected to bind only the protein-analyte complex results in larger distance change between donor and acceptor than conformational change, resulting in maximum signal with analyte and minimum signal without.

Amino acid sensing will focus on those present in extraterrestrial environments, based on studies of meteorites. The chiral amino acids alanine, valine, isovaline and alpha-aminoisobutyric acid are abundant in carbonaceous chondrites and represent compounds common in terrestrial life (alanine, valine) or uncommon (isovaline, alpha-aminoisobutyric acid). Specificities for these amino acids will be combined with specificity for D/L-amino acids and added to glucose and ribose sensors being developed in previously funded research, to produce ten sensing elements for amino acids and sugars that can be deployed with existing sampling hardware as a stand-alone instrument or together with other instrumentation using planar waveguide or standard optics.

Andrew Pohorille/NASA Ames Research Center: "Space-based Instrument for Measuring in situ Gene Expression"

We propose to develop a fully automated, miniaturized, integrated fluidic system for in situ measurements of gene expression in bacterial cultures exposed to space environments. The instrument is aimed at operating in small satellites. We will demonstrate that the instrument performs the required functions and provides the intended measurements. Subsequently, we will build a prototype that has the same features as the intended flight instrument and demonstrate that it can be integrated with small satellite architectures and function under condition characteristic of space flights. The instrument will carry out all steps needed for measuring in situ gene expression: growth of microorganisms, preparation of an RNA sample and detection of signal that measures hybridization of nucleic acid to DNA microarrays. The system will be sensitive, resistant to shocks and vibrations, have low power requirements and function in any orientation relative to the gravity vector. Its unique feature is the capability to use a single microarray in multiple experiments separated in time during flight.

The instrument will represent a major scientific and technological advancement in our ability to understand the impact of the space environment on biological systems by providing data about the behavior of microorganisms during space flights orders of magnitude richer than what is currently available. Once developed, the instrument will be used, for example, to understand adaptation of terrestrial life to conditions in space, identify deleterious effects of the space environment, and test our ability to sustain and grow in space organisms that can be used for life support and in situ resource utilization. By doing so, this work will support Goal 3 of the NASA Strategic Plan and Goal 6 of the Astrobiology Roadmap, which emphasizes the importance of assessing the potential for microbial life to adapt and evolve in environments beyond its planet of origin.

Richard Quinn/SETI Institute: "In situ Chemical Activation of Nanostructured Biosensor Arrays for Astrobiology Science"

We propose to develop a micromachined device to chemically activate nanostructured sensor arrays in situ on Mars and on other planetary surfaces. The array design is compatible with small payload missions and multiple analysis platforms (e.g. optical, electrochemical). The technical and scientific functionally of the device will be demonstrated using an Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy Microelectrode Array Analyzer currently under development with NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II funding. The in situ NanoBioArray, will target high priority science objectives for astrobiology including: characterization of environments for astrobiological sample selection, in situ measurement of chemical and organic biomarkers, in situ characterization of biomarker preservation, and in situ detection of extant life. The development of a time-of-use technology for sensor activation during planetary exploration will enable the use of classes of sensors, which are currently shelf life limited, for astrobiological science investigations.

Antonio Ricco/NASA Ames Research Center: "GraviSat: A Nanosatellite-Compatible System to Generate Artificial Gravity using a Rotating CD Platform for Space Studies of Microorganisms and Cells"

We will develop and demonstrate a prototype artificial gravity platform appropriate for biological experimentation in small satellites and planetary landers. Based on "lab-on-a-CD" (CDbioLab) technology, this platform will: (1) adapt to a range of biological experiments with microorganisms, cell cultures, and tissues; (2) adapt to multiple detection methods, including optical and electrochemical; (3) provide artificial acceleration levels from microgravity to > 1 g by controlling rotational velocity; (4) be compatible in size, mass, and power consumption with successfully flown "3-cube" nanosatellite hardware, for which secondary payload opportunities are numerous.

The state of knowledge in astrobiology and space bioscience is significantly limited by two experimental design issues: sufficient numbers of fully independent replicates, and a complete set of appropriate controls. We will address the former by developing CDbioLab technology for free-flying small satellites requiring no human tending and no return of samples to Earth, allowing a range of behavioral, growth, and molecular measurements to be made (over multiple generations for some organisms). Control experiments are critical when multiple perturbations are present, as they are outside Earth's magnetosphere where microgravity and the complex radiation environment can both affect biology. On-board generation of a gravitational field is the only way to unequivocally deconvolve these two effects; the CDbioLab can make such control experiments routine.

The five principle objectives of this project are: (1) design, fabricate, and characterize CDbioLab fluidic discs, motor, and controller, and demonstrate in-disc culturing of cyanobacteria; (2) prove biocompatibility and successful stasis using CDbioLab discs and on-disc reagent storage; (3) integrate MEMS-based electrochemical sensors onto CDbioLab discs and monitor organism growth using this sensor; (4) measure photosynthetic efficiency of cyanobacteria in CDbioLab discs using PAM fluorometry; (5) integrate the CDbioLab system in a flight pressure vessel and demonstrate operation inside an environmental chamber providing space-like conditions of temperature and pressure.

Haris Riris/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center "A Compact Lidar for High Resolution Measurements of Trace Gases" – We propose to continue the development of a diode-laser seeded fiber-based lidar that can, for the first time, enable space-based measurements of the trace gases, with high spatial resolution and sensitivity, using measurements in the 3-4 mm band. This work is directly relevant to NASA's Strategic Goals and Outcomes: "Advance scientific knowledge of the origin and history of the solar system; explore the potential for life elsewhere." Our work also addresses NASA's Astrobiology Roadmap 2008, "How does life begin and evolve?"; "Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe?" Answering many fundamental questions about planetary atmospheres requires monitoring of the atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy to both high and low latitudes, over both day and night and all seasons. Only orbiting laser remote sensing instruments are capable of such global coverage and accuracy. Differential Absorption Lidar techniques are well established, and can map trace gas concentrations from orbit on a global scale. Tunable lidar measurements can identify sources of possible biogenic gases, such as trace gas plumes produced by localized subsurface biology, and aid in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Our proposed will make high spatial resolution measurements of the concentration of methane, formaldehyde, ethane, carbon dioxide, water vapor and their isotopes. These high-resolution maps of gas concentrations will enhance our understanding of the current state of planetary atmospheres and geology.

The goal of this work is to advance the technology readiness of our existing breadboard instrument for future astrobiology missions and if possible, provide an airborne demonstration. Our choice of laser technology, which is highly leveraged by the commercial and defense sectors, will advance the technology for a large range of instrumentation for a wide set of astrobiology missions. Our proposed work benefits from considerable leverage and equipment from our ongoing NASA ESTO (IIP) and GSFC IRAD programs.

Orlando Santos/NASA Ames Research Center: "Exposure of Organics On a Small Satellite (EOOSS)"

We propose to expose organic compounds to natural forces aboard a satellite at Earth orbit and determine if there is enantiomer preference in the region commonly occupied by near-Earth satellites. Such effects could have important implication for the origin of the homochirality observed in life as we now know it. As of now, the principal natural phenomena thought to be capable of enantiomer selection in the early solar system are 1) selective destruction of enantiomers by circularly polarized light (CPL) and 2) a combination of a magnetic field and parallel incident light acting on a pair of enantiomers. Theoretical and experimental evidence have shown that both scenarios can result in a preference of one enantiomer over another: the laboratory part of this project will concentrate on the latter scenario (magnetic field + parallel incident) although in Earth orbit compounds may be subjected to a range of unknown effects.

Although the laboratory enantiomer enhancements observed to date in the above scenarios are small (on the order of ~ 10-4 for magnetic field/parallel light effects) such results, on Earth or in interstellar space, in the early solar system could have lead to subsequent chemical enhancements such as life's current homochirality. To produce such a combination of causative factors (co-parallel magnetic field and incident radiation) on the satellite it is thought that the most ideal satellite orbit should be at the approximate latitude of 25O (south or north). Here the magnetic inclination (angle of incident magnetic lines impinging on Earth's surface at that location) is the most (but not perfectly) parallel to the sun's radiation. Absorption spectra from the chosen organic compounds will be used to guide laboratory experiments meant to be preambles to actual satellite measurements. The method of detection on the satellite will be polarimetry.

Although our current knowledge leads to the present rationale and experimental setup, there may be unknown natural forces (e.g., various forms of radiation) at Earth-orbit that might also lead to chiral effects on the organic compounds.

Sara Seager/Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "A Nanosatellite Concept Study to Find Transiting Earth Analogs Around the Brightest Sun-Like Stars"

We stand on a great divide in the detection and study of exoplanets. On one side of this divide are the numerous giant exoplanets with measured densities and atmospheric temperatures. On the other side lies the possibility, as yet unrealized, of detecting and characterizing a true Earth analog (an Earth-size planet orbiting a sun-like star in a 1 AU orbit). We propose to bridge this divide by developing a concept for "ExoplanetSat", a nanosatellite capable of continuously monitoring one nearby, bright star for 18 months to search for transiting Earths. The concept study will flow to a mission involving a suite of nanosatellites to monitor the brightest stars – stars too widely separated across the sky for a single telescope to continuously monitor.

The primary engineering objective is to develop an attitude control system to point a 3kg, 10cmx10cmx30cm nanosatellite to within a few arcseconds and to develop camera image stabilization hardware and software, using piezoelectric actuators, to keep the star to a fraction of a camera pixel. Low cost, low risk, and flexible launch opportunities will be enabled by utilizing the P-POD design and low-Earth orbit.
The primary science objective is to determine which stars offer the best opportunity for discovery of transits, given each star's spectrum, wavelength-dependent variability, location on the sky, and feasible instrumental parameters. Because only planets with the highest signal-to-noise transits will allow followup mass and atmospheric biosignature measurements, targeted searches for transiting planets around the brightest sun-like stars are critical. A nanosatellite mission is a cost-effective opportunity to monitor the top priority stars, immediately. These facts compensate for the low probability of Earth-analog transits for any individual star. The education objective is to enable undergraduate and graduate students to get hands-on experience with all aspects of a space mission, from concept study to flight.

Edward Sittler/Goddard Space Flight Center "Ion Neutral 3D Mass Spectrometer to Determine Astrobiological Potential of Europa"

We propose to develop a novel ion-neutral 3D mass spectrometer to determine the astrobiological potential of Europa. The instrument uses a combination of electrostatic deflection, magnetic deflection, time-of-flight and solid state detection strategies. This instrument allows one to select a mass group of minor species for entrance into spectrometer, while rejecting major species (O+n, S+n, O2+), which can hide minor species due to scattering that may occur within the instrument. Measuring minor species, including isotopes, is essential for determining the origins and evolution of Europa's atmospheres (internal global ocean), detection of trace ions & gases and detection biosignature molecules. In addition to Europa this ion-neutral mass spectrometer will have an impact on the field of planetary atmospheres, planetary exospheres, planetary ionospheres, planetary magnetospheres, planetary moons, comets, KBO objects and their interaction with the solar wind when applicable. It will have unmatched capability to uniquely identify minor species at the parts-per-billion level with a very high mass resolution (8 < M/dM < 1000). This resolution can be attained over a very wide range of energies from a fraction of an electron volt (e.g., ionospheric ions or neutrals) up to 50 kV (e.g., Jovian magnetospheric ions, Europa exospheric pickup ions), with high geometric factor and relatively low mass ~ 8 kg and power ~ 7 watts. This instrument can cover the mass range 1 <= M <= 1000 amu, with higher masses ~ 5000 amu are achievable. Unique ion identification will be attained with very low background detection even for the harsh radiation environment at Europa, a prime target in the decadal report.

Maria Zuber/Massachusetts Institute Of Technology "A Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG): An In-situ Detector for Life on Mars Ancestrally Related to Life on Earth"

The Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes (SETG) Project will test the hypothesis that life on Mars, if it exists, shares a common ancestor with life on Earth. There is increasing evidence that viable microbes could have been transferred between the two planets, based in part on calculations of meteorite trajectories and magnetization studies supporting only mild heating of meteorite cores. In addition, microbial life has been discovered in Earth environments exposed to high levels of radiation and extremes of temperature, demonstrating the incredible adaptability of microbes. Based on the shared-ancestry hypothesis, we propose to look for DNA and RNA through in-situ analysis of Martian soil (or ice) samples. Using molecular biology approaches including Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), we aim to develop an instrument that can isolate, amplify, detect, and classify any extant DNA or RNA based organism, even at extremely low abundance. In our first ASTID grant we made substantial progress, including demonstrating the core amplification and detection technology. Here we propose to develop several components of our instrument including a microfluidic module that will permit sequencing in-situ, on Mars. By returning precise genetic information, SETG virtually eliminates false positive results: sequences from likely contaminates are immediately identified, whereas any system of life isolated from that on Earth over geologic time will be evident from phylogenetic analysis. This, combined with ultraclean techniques and single-molecule sensitivity, make SETG arguably the most sensitive and specific detector of life, and an essential component of a comprehensive life detection strategy.

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