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Field Work

Investigation 1: Habitability Field Site Research: Co-I Dr. Coleman and his collaborators continued their work with investigation 1 Seafloor Processes by carrying out synthesis of abiotic organic matter through an exploration cruise to the area in which the team discovered very deep high temperature hydrothermal vents in 2009. The results of this work will indicate the tectonic structure and context of the multiple hydrothermal vent fields.

Investigation 2: Survivability Field Site Research: In Investigation 2, Co-Investigator Dr. Gordon Love and his group at the University of California, Riverside, continued to investigate the production, preservation, and detection of chemotrophic lipid biological markers in Arctic thaw lakes as an analog for life detection under Icy Worlds conditions and generate historical, biomarker-based records of methane cycling and primary production in Arctic permafrost-bound lakes from sediment core analyses. A fieldwork in October 2010 was conducted to collect sediment core samples which have all been freeze-dried and gently homogenized, completing the first step of the protocol developed for this project. Sedimentological descriptions of the cores have been compiled for communal use. Bulk inorganic geochemical analyses have been conducted on all October samples. Total lipid extracts have been obtained for all samples, and catalytic hydropyrolysis of whole sediment has been conducted on approximately half of the samples.

Also as part of Investigation 2, Co-Is, Adrian Ponce and Kevin Hand carried out an investigation on the microbiology of Kilimanjaro glaciers. Microbial diversity data show that at the time of dust layer formation, the glacier surface hosted an active microbial, cold-water ecosystem. They found that a majority of bacterial clones, as determined by bacterial gene sequencing, are most closely related to those isolated from cold water environments. They also continued to investigate viability of spores and radiation resistant microbes in ices under radiation environment in astrobiological context (i.e Europa conditions). The experiments are being carried out in 2012.

Investigation 3: Detectability Field Site Research: The primary component of Investigation 3 is the field campaign in Barrow, AK to characterize and quantify methane release from the Alaskan North Slope region and to understand the origin and fate of the methane. This work focuses on a handful of thermokarst lakes near Barrow and extends to the roughly 13,000 lakes throughout the region, an unknown unknown fraction of which release methane to the atmosphere.

Figure 3-1.
This figure shows the lakes at which our team has been working and from which samples have been collected for limnological and microbiological analyses.

Methane Mapping and Detection

As part of the team's work to identify and map lakes that may be releasing large quantities of methane, they are using data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) onboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. These satellites get near daily coverage of the Alaskan North Slope and one of the data products is a snow and ice coverage map for the region. Much of the region is often cloudy and the data is therefore not useful, but Co-I Hand gave an undergraduate intern from Brown the task of sifting through the data from the past ~10 years to look for freezing anomalies in the lake ice and snow cover that might be usable as a proxy for areas of intense and sustained methane bubbling.

Remote Sensing of the Sierra Snowpack and Algae Blooms

As part of our continuing effort to map and understand the microbial biomass in the Sierra snowpack, Co-I's Painter and Hand gathered data from several piggy-back flybys on the Airborne Visible and Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS). The primary mission was for a different spectroscopy investigation, but working with Collaborator Mike Eastwood our team was able to retrieve spectacularly clear data from AVIRIS showing the Sierra snowpack in July of 2011 (Figure 3-12). Investigators Hand and Painter are continuing to work on the data reduction and analyses.

Figure 3-12.
The groundtracks and two examples of the quicklook data products from AVIRIS are shown.

Investigation 4: Path to Flight Field Site Research: Field Instrument support of the Alaska campaigns is one of the major efforts for of Investigation 4 (Field Instrumentation and Path to Flight) activities. For this endeavor, a deep UV native fluorescence instrument (TUCBE - Targeted UV Chemical Biological Explorer - Photon Systems/JPL) whose development has been in part funded by DoD as well as NASA Planetary Protection Research, will be deployed in the coming fiscal year. Under the NAI hardening of the scanning pan/tilt stage has been completed. For a local test prior to deployment in Alaska, the team successfully deployed the instrument in the Mojave and demonstrated capability to operate in a bright, high UV, outdoor environment, as well as detect organics on natural surfaces. These results were confirmed from air measurements that were conducted by a portable miniature mass spectrometer that was also tested in the field (Mojave Desert). In addition to the Alaska field endeavor, a new deep ocean, deep UV native fluorescence instrument for subsurface in-situ detection of organics and microbes living on borehole walls (DEBI-T) was designed, developed, tested and was successfully deployed in North Pond located near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

As a part of Investigation 4, Path to Flight, PI Kanik and colleagues, designed a low-cost flyby concept for a sample return mission called LIFE to Enceladus, a body with high astrobiological potential. A mission opportunity such as LIFE is extremely rare: it would offer science returns comparable to that of Flagship mission but at a much lower flyby sample return cost as a Discovery Mission. The LIFE mission concept is envisioned to orbit Saturn (both to achieve lower sampling speeds approaching 2 km/s which would enable more gentle sample collection than Stardust and to make possible multiple flybys of Enceladus), to sample Enceladus' plume, the E ring of Saturn and the Titan upper atmosphere (Fig 5). LIFE could take advantage of a Jupiter gravity assist if it is launched before 2019 to reduce mission life times and also launch vehicle costs.

Figure 5.
Typical LIFE Trajectory. The outbound trajectory departs Earth for a Venus, Earth and Jupiter gravity assists respectively then a Saturn Orbit Insertion. After 8 months Saturn tour, deorbits Saturn for 5 year Earth direct return.