Life at the SETI Institute

By Dr. Rosalba Bonaccorsi
Environmental Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute, and Gail Jacobs

i-89c7371c3a1be3e47ee9929273eed4a4-Plant-&-Rosalba-3-yr-sm.jpgRosalba, what first sparked your interest in science?
I’ve always had big dreams — even as a young girl. As soon as I started to walk, I took an interest in conducting experiments with whatever was available around such as household plants and various chemical compounds. I’m lucky I didn’t end up poisoned or otherwise hurt! I remember dismantling alarm clocks. I was so curious!

As a young girl, I was in poor health and as a result spent a lot of time home schooled alone, thinking and wondering about different things. I didn’t go on school trips or big outdoor holidays, so when my mother i-cb3a613bdc1f2f6e96bab5c78f21d538-Mum-&-Rosalba-sm.jpg took me to the Natural Science Museum in Bergamo, Italy, where I lived, it was very special. I was so overwhelmed and fascinated by Paleontology, relics, bones and rocks! That might have been the first time I realized I wanted to be a scientist, but it was mostly an unconscious inclination similar to the way a salmon instinctively swims upstream.

Since childhood, I found science and astronomy fascinating and I was very eager to read any science book I could put my hands on! As I became older and started thinking about career choices, I knew I wanted to become a scientist, but I was interested in a wider experience than astronomy. I also knew I would need to delve deeply into math and physics, which proved difficult for me. Good teachers are so important. I had good teachers but only in Primary School. Later on, as an undergraduate I didn’t particularly enjoy the academic and theoretical aspects of those courses. I took the minimum amount necessary, but I got through math and physics, as I recognized they offer an important key to understanding our world.

How did you become interested in Natural and Environmental Sciences?
I liked the idea of combining the areas of biology and geology and I wanted to travel. I had so many constraints in the early part of my life, so I really wanted to see if the real natural world matched my early imagination of it– and I’m so happy I’ve been able to do that!

i-0e79bf2a6a164ced6ffad42324e120a0-pistol-star-sm.jpgWhy should the general public care about your research?
Planetary studies can spark the imagination. We want to go to Mars. Humans have dreamed of going to another planet and looking for life throughout the ages. We want to better understand the nature of the Solar System and we want to know if we’re alone.

But at the same time, we are facing challenges today and tomorrow here on Earth — global climate change, water shortages. When we are monitoring water in clays, we’re looking at how the biomass might vary in clays that become dry during the summer and clays that stay moist, so it has very basic applications to life on Earth. My dream is that there is no conflict between doing good science and discovering applications for our research that benefit all of humanity. Image: The Pistol Star: A Brilliant Star in the Milky Way’s Core. Image credit: Don F. Figer (UCLA) and NASA.

Describe your research project for us.
I have one main project that has a broad context. I’m involved in the environmental aspects of Planetary Protection. Planetary protection scientists are concerned with the prevention, detection, monitoring, and remediation practices of forward and backward biological contamination potentially associated with NASA and international exploration missions to the Solar System in which we live. Forward contamination would involve contaminants found on our instruments or surfaces designed to interact with planetary surfaces and subsurfaces. Specifically, with my colleagues, I use Raman spectroscopy for the simultaneous detection of minerals and organics associated with microbes in complex environmental samples. It is particularly important to prevent forward contamination from Earth in high-sensitivity destinations like Mars.

Raman spectroscopy is a non-contact technique using laser light interacting with molecular bounds. This provides fingerprint-like information of the compound/material we want to identify. This technique has a wide array of applications: from the identification of baby powder to that of dynamite!

In addition to Raman spectroscopy tools I am using two non culture-based biological assays enabling detection of viable life as we know it. They are the Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) assay, which detects compounds from microbial cell’s walls, and the Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) assay, which detects ATP as the energy source used by all life on Earth.

As a group at NASA Ames, we have been using these tools in two interesting and complementary ways. We are looking for 1) trace amounts of microbes on super clean spacecraft-like materials; and 2) discrete minerals or organics left over from dead or living microbes in soils or rock samples as analogs of Martian mineral dust. In the latter case, we want to know if we will really be able to detect microbes and organics when they stick and hide on mineral dust particles from space and planetary surfaces.

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Distinct micro-Raman spectra signatures of sample from the Little Hebe crater rim in Death Valley (B) simultaneously showing mineralogical and microbiological spectral signatures of various minerals. The assignments are supported by compositional EDX spectra (D), optical (A, 20X microscope objective), and Scanning Electron Microscope observations (B).
– Image courtesy of Rosalba Bonaccorsi

Biological backward contamination from an alien planetary body to Earth, following a Sample Return Mission, has often been sensationalized in science fiction and movies. However, we know there has been a consistent exchange of potentially biological material, not only from Mars to the Earth and vice versa, but throughout the entire history of the Solar System to Earth, including possible microbes traveling inside meteorites and comets. The concern and caution are legitimate, however, because we don’t really know what is out there.

You mentioned your work includes the detection of organics.
Yes, this is important because when we go to Mars, we want to make sure the organics we find there are not organics we brought from Earth. If organics on the spacecraft are from the lab or even from when the instruments were packaged, the experiments themselves could jeopardize understanding of the organics found on Mars. It’s important to know whether we’re looking at something new or if we brought the organics from Earth. We don’t want to bring any earth-born microbe onto the Martian surface.

Can you share any interesting facts about the Mars Science Laboratory, the next mission to Mars?
The Mars Science Laboratory mission, aka MSL11, is scheduled to launch in November 2011. The Rover, named Curiosity, will be pretty large – about the size of a Mini-Cooper car. Curiosity will have a suite of remote and contact instruments on board, such as the SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars). SAM is one of the most important tools in the suite for the search and analysis of organics in geological samples of identified chemistry and mineralogy (with the Chemin Instrument). SAM comprises a Gas Chromatograph coupled with a Laser Spectrometer and a Mass Spectrometer to separate and identify organic compounds in gas samples of Martian atmosphere and from processed geological samples. Analog studies are very important to support MSL11.

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NASA’s next Mars Rover on a Test Drive –Image credit: JPL/NASA

Remote observation tools, including panoramic and microscope cameras working together with a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (ChemCam) will be also able to detect minerals, but at a distance of about 7 meters! This will provide the necessary information to select targets of science interest for close-up analysis!

Tell us about some of your analog studies.
In this specific, we are looking at astrobiology analogs. Studying the boundary for life in different and generally “extreme” environments on Earth can help scientists understand how organisms might exist on different planetary bodies, such as Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. My research on Mars analog environments focuses on the habitability and preservation potential of mineral-supported environments on Earth. This includes environments, geological materials, and minerals that have been observed on Mars, such as different types of volcanic rocks, oxidized minerals, sulfates, and clays. Clay minerals are the most interesting and important targets for the next exploration of Mars. We’ll sample and compare clays and non-clays to determine how organics are preserved in each.

How do you conduct Mars analog field research?
An important part of my job relates to the environmental context. In this stage we deploy temperature and moisture sensors to understand long-term variations as boundary conditions for life. I go to various locations to learn which suite of samples would be best to study in preparation for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. We collect, characterize and coordinate samples empowered by an army of volunteers and students. Thanks to their generosity and support we are able to do this work! At NASA Ames we’re collaborating with the SAM team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Sampling in the Atacama Desert (NASA Spaceward Bound 2006)

I do believe our results could be useful for the landing site selection team. Results from this research can also be useful to elucidate detection of life or organics on Mars and it also ties into planetary protection aspects.

A few factors considered in landing site selection are habitability potential, the possibility for minerals most suitable for life, and the preservation of organics. Some minerals are much more conducive to this preservation, which we’ve learned through Earth studies. The mainstream hypotheses are that clay minerals are the best for which we can hope. However, in addition to sites rich in clays, it could be better choosing sites where there are different types of minerals like sulfates, carbonates, and other minerals. So, “Where should our Curiosity Rover go?” remains the big question to be addressed. Of course, there are other considerations, such as safety, and planning for contingencies should the Rover get stuck or an instrument doesn’t work.

Your research takes you to which analog sites?
i-0a8c6a46b4b4937e186f05b0681c6d1b-Little-Hebe-Crater-sm.jpgWe’re looking at a variety of environments, from arid to moist, throughout the world. The areas are selected based upon how well they relate to Mars’ different climate stages throughout its history. This is why we’re studying Death Valley in California, the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Namib Desert in Africa, and locations in Australia, all arguably the most arid regions on Earth. These regions are unique and are being used by NASA to test instruments and concepts for future Mars missions. In the picture to the right, I am at Little Hebe Crater in Death Valley, pointing out an intracter fill deposit. Image courtesy of Lara Vimercati.

Atacama is the most extreme and is considered a hyper-arid region, averaging less than 2mm rainfall per year. The Namib Desert is another great example of aridity, but it is uniquely supported by fog as dominant source of moisture. It is perhaps 10 times less arid than Atacama but more arid than Death Valley. My work is put into the context of rainfall and fog and the sites we choose are selected because of their increasing or decreasing degrees of moisture in terms of rainfall and fog.

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The unique fog-laden Namib Desert

Although Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth, it is approximately 50 times moister than the extremely arid core of the Atacama Desert! In the northern half of the valley we’re studying a high-fidelity site with fascinating geological features: the Ubehebe Crater Volcanic Field. This has the highest number of features that lends itself toward a good analog for the Mars landing sites candidates. First, the field includes 13 craters formed during subsequent volcanic explosions; each crater represents an individual natural laboratory where we can test different hypotheses on the origin and distribution of some type of clays seen on Mars. The Ubehebe Crater is the largest crater within.

i-0722681fc2069a57729a056f8b887071-Ubehebe-bottom-sm.jpgSecond, the entire area has a combination of old and recent geological features, including clay-rich fluvial deposits and volcanic formations, of which the weathering and erosion provides parent material to occasionally flooded clay ponds. Third, we can study and quantify the clay cycle under hydrological conditions typical of an arid climate similar to that occurred on early Mars about 3.5 billion years ago (Late Noachian- Hesperian). We are now in the process of knowing about the precipitation rate and how much sediment is eroding after each major rainfall event. At the same time we can look at microbiology and organic distribution.

The other arid sites I visit are in Australia, where we again look at clays and non-clays. Australia has the oldest deposits, perhaps billions of years old. This is where we can look at the big picture: the quantity and different types of minerals that create moisture, distribution, habitability potential between minerals, and whether clays might offer more information than non-clays. Compiling this data can help us find the best places to explore on Mars.

We also study one clay deposit from the California coast because of its extremities in terms of humidity and fog. The California coast receives about 20 times more rain than Death Valley. Water content is one of the factors for sampling and testing. We’re looking at the variation of minerals through their moisture gradients.

What are the challenges when working in Death Valley, a part of the National Park Service and also a sacred site?
The volcanic field in Death Valley is very powerful in terms of its cultural heritage, because it is a sacred site. In California, the Native American Timbisha Shoshone Tribe inhabited the Mojave Desert, including the Death Valley area, or the Timbisha Valley (the Valley of Red Ochre), the valley of life. And, of course, we need permission from the National Park Service (NPS). I’m working closely with the NPS, who is accountable for the tribe’s needs and requirements. I am committed to conducting our research in a way that is respectful and I do wish to be able to involve those from the tribe who are interested in what I have been doing as much as I can.

What is the coolest thing about your project?
I’m working with the biology and microbiology on Earth. It’s cool that this research has the potential to address different sets of applications. Although the project is focused on addressing habitability potential on other planets, my comparative work on clays may help reveal new information about climate change. It could help predict what could happen to life when an environment shifts from a hyper-arid to an arid situation, such as the drying of southwest North America.

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Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley – Photo credit: Rosalba Bonaccorsi

I also think it’s very cool that this research has a cultural involvement. We’re very interested in the best ways to conduct and handle research in a sacred site. Ubehebe means “rock basket”, which is central to the Timbisha’s creation history. I’m interested in working towards ways we can give back to the people who were there long before us. It seems like a big dichotomy — scientists versus heritage. I hope this contrast can be minimized and that findings will be useful in more than one way. It’s very exciting!

What do you currently consider your biggest challenge?
While merging culture and heritage with science is one of the coolest aspects of my project, it can also present one of the biggest challenges. Whether the science is related to planetary exploration for missions or planetary protection, I’d like to create an opportunity in which the results we find by performing the same tasks and spending the same amount of public money can be applied and be beneficial in more than one way.

How did you come to join the SETI Institute?
I knew about the SETI Institute for a long time. I met Frank Drake at a meeting in Trieste, Italy, in 2000. I became very excited about the search for life and also the potential for life in the universe. I was so fascinated. I thought the SETI approach was very challenging but also was something worth pursuing. We need big dreams, even if we cannot achieve them in our lifetime. I got a Post Doc position at NASA Ames from 2005-2008. I had been involved with the SETI Institute in an unofficial capacity, so when the time came for me to choose an organization with which to align myself, I joined the Institute in 2008.

What motivates you?
Many things motivate me. To bring perfection to what I do is extremely motivating. I realize perfection doesn’t exist, but perfection is truth sometimes, and the process of getting to the truth motivates me. In science, conducting one experiment may not result in the truth. There are so many lines of evidence to consider and observe. Am I looking at the right things? Have I looked at everything now is existence? This is my driving force. It’s also motivating to recognize my limits and then push beyond them.

You seem very interested in giving back to society.
As a young future scientist, many people helped me along my path. I want to help others in the same way. I want to encourage young people to pursue a career in science. It can help you emerge from your shell. That’s what happened with me. Becoming a scientist is not that popular today. I think it’s a life’s work that is worthy.

i-2de24aea49d7ff009ad498d54069c85a-free-time-sm.jpgI spend much of my time volunteering, talking to children, talking to taxi drivers, talking to everybody who asks what I do. I want to inspire others and that motivates me. I find it is unacceptable to see kids and young people struggling at the low end of their potential, or feeling bad and being unable to see a bright future for themselves. I let them know scientists can inspire others, make a difference in the world – and have fun!

How do you spend your free time?
My work is my fun. I like to watch movies, read books about spirituality and mysticism, and practice outdoor meditation. I especially like traveling for work because it involves exploring. I love exploration! To me, it’s the purest source of fun. And the fun is amplified when I can bring friends and family to the places I work. I love to show them the unique areas and pass on what I learn.

Whom do you admire and why?
In terms of human rights, I greatly admire Mahatma Gandhi. He inspires me for his extreme way of dealing with war and aggressiveness. In the science realm, I’d have to say Carl Sagan. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, he was one of the most amazing, “out-of-the-box” thinkers.

In terms of people I knew, someone who was a wonderful role model and who touched me deeply was Gerald Soffen. He was the Project Scientist for the Viking Missions and was the most eclectic person I’ve ever met. He worked at a number of places including JPL, Langley, and Goddard Space Flight Center as he was involved in different aspects of microbiology, life detection and the Earth Observation System He had both deep expertise and also a wide breadth of knowledge.

Gerry also had an amazing personality. His main loves were science and young people. He inspired everybody and helped a lot of people get into NASA. He could see young people for who they could become in the future. Even though he was a great man, he exemplified humility. I never met anyone like him.

If you could swap roles with someone for a short period of time, who would it be?
I’d like to swap roles with someone like Gerald. I could be in a role where I didn’t have to worry about writing and getting grants and I could be totally free to help others, beside myself. That would be wonderful!

If time wasn’t an issue, what would you still like to learn?
I’d like to gain more expertise in electronics, physics, and I’d like to acquire exceptional programming skills. It would also be fun if I could have time to tinker with scientific instruments — not just from the user standpoint but I’d like to learn more about fixing and even building an instrument for life detection.

Of course, I’d love to be able to reassemble an alarm clock after dismantling it. That would bring to a full circle what I was trying to do at the age of 4!

Comments

  1. #1 rjwhite
    December 2, 2010

    Are you also exploring the concept that arsenic may also be a major ingredient in the search for life on other worlds?

  2. #2 SocraticGadfly
    December 10, 2010

    You’re not totally right on the Namib Desert being unique. Coastal portions of the Sonoran Desert, as well as parts of the Atacama, also get notable moisture from fog.

  3. #3 Keith Manning
    December 16, 2010

    What will Seti do during the 2012 plantary alignment. Maybe you should have your radio telescopes blasting signals in and away from where the sun is aligned to see if you can pick up any signals. I think this is a very good opportunity to find life in space. Also have broadcast signals going to the Orion stars where life is suppose to exist. I’d like to know if something comes out of this.

    thanks

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