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Grant aids UH study on water's ties to life


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POSTED: Monday, October 06, 2008

University of Hawaii researchers will expand investigations and education on the origin, history and distribution of water and its relationship to life in the universe under a new multimillion-dollar NASA astrobiology grant.

The grants average $7 million, but UH astronomer Karen Meech, principal investigator, said her team is hoping to get $8 million over the next five years.

Her research team was one of 10 selected across the country for NASA Astrobiology Institute grants.

Institute for Astronomy Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki said, “;This is a fantastic success, showing the outstanding scientific strength of the UH astrobiology team.”;

Meech said her team is focusing on water and its relationship to life in the universe because of Hawaii's midocean location and because of the astronomy facilities on Mauna Kea and UH geological and oceanographic strengths.

Where the earth got its water will be among the puzzles tackled, she said.

“;Did comets bring in water late in the game? Was there enough water captured and locked within minerals of some of the material that contributed to building of the planet? Did the earth capture a little bit of it out of gases from which it formed?”;

Such questions will be addressed by astronomers and geophysicists “;looking at chemical fingerprints of the water,”; she said. The team also will examine chemistry in young planetary systems to try and understand how planets get their water, she said.

The group hopes to develop a space mission proposal to visit an asteroid, Meech said, pointing to the discovery of a new class of objects in the asteroid belt by UH astronomer Dave Jewitt and a graduate student. They look like asteroids in terms of their orbits, but they behave like comets, with dust tails, she said. “;It means bodies in the asteroid belt have a lot of water.”;

Another issue is how microbes of the deep sea floor interact with minerals, the earth's surface and upper layers, she said. Microbial alteration of minerals might provide clues to other worlds that have water and possible “;fingerprints of life,”; she added.

Her team includes 14 UH co-investigators and 36 international and U.S. collaborators, she said. The money will be spent largely on hiring postdoctoral fellows to do research and to support graduate students, she said.

A vigorous outreach program is planned as part of the institute's mission under the grant, she said, including a summer astrobiology Alii Program for high school teachers to work with scientists, use of the Faulkes Telescope on Maui for high school student projects, a Hawaii Student-Teacher Astronomy Research Program, a Teacher-In-Sea Program giving teachers oceanographic experience to share via Internet with students, and workshops and scientific meetings.

The university also is partnering with Sweden and Nordic countries for an astrobiology winter school for graduate students, Meech said. “;We will offer the winter school every other year, and in alternate years they will offer a summer school, the first in Iceland.”;