Ashley in the lab showing the apparatus used to prepare samples of ethane or ethane/water mixes for infrared spectral analysis. Matching these laboratory spectra with astronomical spectra of objects in our outer Solar System will help determine if these objects contain ethane.
Ashley is a biology major who became interested in the SETI program after reading about it on the Cal Poly Pomona Astronomy website. She applied and was accepted to spend the summer of 2010 working with Dr. Rachel Mastrapa of the SETI Institute studying the properties of ethane, and ethane water mixes in the lab to determine if these compounds exist in outer solar system objects. This is her story.
The summer of 2010 is one I will never forget. I had the opportunity to work with the most amazing mentor, Dr. Rachel Mastrapa, along with 18 of the finest REU students SETI could possibly have chosen. We did everything from playing a game of soccer after work, to watch the Perseids meteor shower on top of Freemont Peak, to working tirelessly through the night scrambling to finish research.
One of the recreational activities of the SETI REU program is to go hiking. Here, Ashley is posing in front of Burney Falls, a lovely spot not far from the location of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), the radio telescope being used to search for signals from extraterrestrials (as well as doing regular astronomical observations).
The trip to Hat Creek and Lassen was one of the most memorable events of the summer. I had a chance to check out the Allan Telescope Array, and actually drive one of the telescopes! Not to mention take pictures mimicking the movie Contact; it was awesome. Hiking through Lassen I was in complete awe. One minute we were looking at hot springs, then having a snowball fight in 80 degree weather the next.
Back at SETI and NASA Ames (where we lived), there were always interesting talks being given at least twice a week. We were able to hear about cutting edge discoveries from the researchers themselves. During my time working at NASA Ames, C-60 was discovered. I was able to meet people who were a part of this research in person!
Ashley adds liquid nitrogen to the apparatus to cool it. Liquid nitrogen is very cold, only 77 degress above absolute zero or 321 degrees below zero Farenheit (77 K = -196 C = -321 F).
Besides all the exciting activities, I did find time for actual research! I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Rachel Mastrapa taking infrared spectra of ethane, and ethane water mixes. The ultimate goal of these lab based observations are to construct optical constants that can be used to determine if these compounds exist on outer solar system objects. What we were looking for in these spectra were the differences as well as similarities among phase, temperature, and even the mixture. Data like this will be extremely useful in detecting organic compounds such as ethane on outer solar system objects. Since ethane is an organic compound, it is possible that it may have the ability to support simple life forms. This idea is one that kept me motivated through those long days in the lab, tirelessly collecting data day in and day out.
Working at NASA Ames was an experience I will never forget, because the work done in these buildings truly does make a world of difference.