Director: Douglas Whittet, Department of Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy
Associate Director: John W. Delano, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Department of Chemistry, University at Albany
Program Home Page: http://www.origins.rpi.edu
The New York Center for Astrobiology is devoted to investigating the origins of life on Earth and the conditions that lead to formation of habitable planets in our own and other solar systems. Based within the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Center is a member of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and a partnership between Rensselaer and several other universities, including the State University of New York at Albany and Syracuse University. Our researchers include faculty, postdoctorals, graduate students and undergraduates at Rensselaer and our partner campuses. The Center promotes undergraduate education, including a minor in Astrobiology, and hosts a weekly Origin of Life seminar. Major areas of research are summarized below.
Research Innovations and Initiatives
The Origins of Preplanetary Matter
This research seeks to understand the cosmic origins of molecules essential to life, including water, hydrocarbons, alcohols, and other precursors of amino acids. Data from telescopes on the Earth and in space are used to investigate the nature and origin of interstellar dust and the chemical and physical processes that link interstellar matter to the origins of new solar systems. In parallel with the observational investigations, we are developing and testing models that describe the physical and chemical processes that govern the evolution of these molecules, linking interstellar chemistry to primitive bodies (comets and asteroids) in our solar system that may have delivered volatiles and organic molecules to the early Earth and Mars. The goal is to test the hypothesis that the molecules necessary for life are common ingredients of new solar systems, and that delivery of these ingredients to planetary surfaces is an essential step toward the origins of life.
The Bombardment History of the Earth-Moon System
This research will assess the importance of interplanetary material not only as a source of raw materials for the origin of planetary life, but also as a potential threat in the form of impacts by large cometary and asteroidal bodies that may have sterilized the Earth during the first few hundred million years of its history. Because the impact record on Earth is destroyed over time by weathering, volcanism, and tectonic movement of the crust, the nearby Moon is studied as a valuable proxy: much of its ancient surface remains virtually undisturbed. Investigations are made regarding the chemical composition and chronology of glasses from the Moon that were produced by the extreme heat and pressure of impacts. Results enable the bombardment history of the Moon (and hence the Earth) to be determined.
The Environment of Early Earth and the RNA World
Understanding the chemical state of the earliest atmosphere and oceans is critical to any theory of the origin of life on Earth. We explore conditions in the first few hundred million years of Earth’s history by reading the “chemical memories” carried by zircons and other ancient crystals that survive from this epoch, with the goal of establishing the timescale on which the Earth became suitable as a host for complex organic molecules and life itself. One scenario for the emergence of life is the RNA World hypothesis, which proposes that the first life on Earth was based on RNA rather than DNA. Our research has shown that RNA chains some 50 units long can be formed in the laboratory from activated RNA monomers using montmorillonite clay as a catalyst. Future research will investigate reactions of these RNAs to generate the more complicated biomolecules that may have been essential to the first life.
Vistas of Early Mars
NASA is planning in the next decade an unprecedented development in Mars exploration: a mission to return samples from the Martian surface, gathered at locations that appear most promising as environments for present or past life. To better prepare for the selection and detailed analysis of such samples, experiments will be conducted to assess the ability of various minerals known to be present on Mars to retain evidence of past habitable environments (e.g. water) and life itself through preservation of isotopic biosignatures.
Baldwin, S.—Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University
Delano, J.—Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Albany
Ferris, J.—Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology
McGown, L.—William Weightman Walker Professor, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology
Roberge, W.—Professor, Department of Physics, Applied Physics, & Astronomy
Watson, B.—Institute Professor of Science, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences
Whittet, D.—Professor, Department of Physics, Applied Physics, & Astronomy