>While examining how asteroids and comets might have played a role in the origin of life, Albion College professors Nicolle Zellner and Vanessa McCaffery caught the attention of NASA officials.
Impressed with the duo’s creativity and Zellner’s devotion to a pilot study of shock chemistry, the NASA Astrobiology Institute granted them $121,000 to continue research into understanding how organic molecules in objects such as asteroids can survive and even morph during impact events.
Zellner learned about the grant from her membership in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI), but she didn’t expect to attract NASA’s attention so quickly when she submitted an application.
“(It was in) shock. Even though it was a small pool of applicants limited to the scientists in the NAI program, we’re a small potato, we’re Albion College,” she said. “It feels pretty cool … especially to be specifically commended by the (NASA) board for the creativity of the work.”
Zellner and McCaffery will team up on the multi-disciplinary project with a collaborator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and also include students in their research and analysis.
“In making selections this year we placed a priority on new, innovative work that went beyond the originally proposed research of the NAI teams,” the grant allocation letter from NASA said.
At the end of February the duo will head out to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., to do several days of simulations on a highly acclaimed vertical gun — one of less than a dozen in operation around the world, Zellner said.
It took them several months to reserve time on the gun and they will run simulations and tests to see how molecules hold up and/or change in samples of different materials.
They hope it will help them better understand what occurs when asteroids and comets collide with planets or other matter in the solar system.
“The (gun’s) chamber itself is roughly 10 stories tall and it’s probably 10 feet across. A projectile is launched from the top of the gun and slams down to the base of the chamber where the sample is sitting,” Zellner said. “There are probably three or four portholes on the outside of the chamber so you can see what’s going on, and they also have video cameras that are aimed at the impact area.”
The velocity of the impacts is several kilometers per hour, according to NASA’s website.
Shock chemistry is a field that doesn’t lack for interested researchers and inquisitive minds, but the tools needed to conduct experiments “are often done in the name of national defense, so you need security clearance to use special instruments,” Zellner said.
She said shock chemistry’s application to origin of life is fairly recent, but renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan started proposing theories regarding it in the 1970s.
“What we do know is that these types of sugars have been found in extraterrestrial materials and that these sugars can become more complex to form some of the major molecules required for life,” Zellner said. “What we want to figure out is if the impact delivery of these molecules is the mechanism that allows them to become more complex or, if not, is it another mechanism that’s yet to be discovered?”
McCaffery, who became interested in shock chemistry through collaboration with Zellner at the college, said she’s thrilled to “work hand-in-hand with the next generation of scientists” on a project like this, including her students.
“It’s really just exciting to be able to bring in students on this project and share the results with them and have them be part of the analysis,” she said. “For me, that’s really important, and that’s one of the reasons why I chose Albion College — just being able to connect with students on these really important scientific issues.”
The professors hope to schedule time for further experiments on the vertical gun later this year.
As published in the Jackson Citizen Patriot on Jan. 24, 2011