Astronomy and Astrophysics
Astronomers in the Space Center study compact objects, from stars to supermassive black holes. Our current research focuses on stellar evolution from binary star systems, gravitational waves from objects orbiting black holes, active galactic nuclei, and the influence that supermassive black holes exert on their host galaxies. In particular, we are looking at how properties of spiral galaxies - such as spiral arm patterns, central mass, and disk mass density - are related and evolve. Other projects include examining the atmospheric properties of extrasolar planets, studies of the space densities and spectral properties of active galaxies, and binary black holes in merging galaxies.
The discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere in the spring of 2004 is conceivably one of the most significant in the astrobiology arena. One possible source of the methane is from methanogenic microorganisms. Space Center microbiologist are studying methanogens as models for life on Mars. Theoretically, these organisms could survive and prosper in the martian subsurface, where they would use carbon dioxide as their carbon source and hydrogen and/or carbon monoxide as energy sources. Researchers are also focused on other potentially habitable worlds in our solar systems, such as Enceladus and Europa.
The composition and structure of an atmosphere contains a considerable amount of information about a planet’s evolution, chemical processes, and possible life forms. Space Center research in this area involves remote sensing of atmospheric properties as well as modeling to link observed characteristics to chemistry on the planet. Of particular interest are the use of LIDAR for detecting methane on Mars as a possible biological marker, instrumentation for Titan payloads, and spectral analysis of extrasolar planets. The range of remote sensing being developed extends from kilometers to light years and modeling efforts include bench-scale replication in the Space Center's atmosphere simulation chamber.
Planetary Geology and Geophysics
Examination of the geological and geophysical characteristics of planetary bodies leads to greater understanding of the interiors and surfaces of these bodies, the origin and evolution of the Solar System, and the relationship of Earth and its history to that of its neighbors. Center researchers use the Andromeda Planetary Environmental Chamber to simulate the surface environment on Mars and primitive bodies; they conduct investigations into the possibility of water on Mars. Also, investigation of Earth-based analogues for planetary processes is an important aspect of SPAC research in planetary geology and geophysics.