Astronomy and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI):

Jean ChiarDr. Jean Chiar is an astronomer whose research follows the cycle of stellar life and death, tracing the history of dust grains in the cosmos after they are created in the outflows of old, evolved stars until they are incorporated into newly forming stars which may eventually form planetary systems. In the coldest dense regions of interstellar space, submicron-sized grains conglomerate into larger particles, and simple molecules freeze and form on these dust grains, creating interstellar ices. Thermal and energetic processing of these interstellar ices are thought to be a possible formation route for the amino acids in the meteorites that likely played a role in the delivery of organics to the early Earth. By making observations in the infrared part of the spectrum, Dr. Chiar studies the grain growth process and examines the chemical fingerprints of the molecules that are central to the cycle of organic molecule formation. By comparing the astronomical data to theoretical models and laboratory-produced ice analogs, she analyzes the variation in chemical characteristics, abundances and temperatures of water-ice, hydrocarbons, carbon-monoxide ice and carbon-dioxide ice in regions of star-formation (a.k.a. dense clouds) where solar-mass stars are or will eventually be forming. It is important to measure the abundances of these molecules in analogs of the environment where our Sun and Solar System formed, so we can gain a better understanding of the materials that were available for Solar System formation.

The REU student will use IDL to work with new and/or archival spectroscopic data from various observing facilities (e.g. Hershel, Spitzer, NASA's IR Telescope Facility) to analyze the abundances of dust species such as H2O, CO, and/or PAHs in star-formation regions.

Qualifications The student should have computer programming experience and be familiar with the Linux/Unix operating system. Familiarity with IDL is preferred, but programming experience in C or Fortran is acceptable. This project is suitable for a physics or astronomy major. An interest in chemistry is desired, though specific course work in chemistry is not required. This project is at SI.

Jill Tarter Dr. Jill Tarter is a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Many SETI searches have been performed over the past decades by Dr. Tarter's team at the SETI Institute and by teams at other institutions, using a variety of telescopes, frequencies, targets, and search strategies. Some of these observations are documented at

A student working with Dr. Tarter would work to bring this archive of observations up to date, remove or correct erroneous entries, and calculate the relative effectiveness of each search. This project would primarily involve a literature search and the analysis of existing data, with the goal of producing a statistical paper that can accurately quantify how much of the cosmic haystack has been searched for intelligent signals to date. There may also be opportunities to take part in active observations using the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a radio telescope built by the SETI Institute in Northern California to simultaneously perform both SETI searches and make radio astronomy observations.

Qualifications : The student should have basic knowledge of astronomy, good math and computer skills, and a strong interest in SETI. The student should enjoy reading, have good writing skills, and be well-organized and self-motivated. This project is at SI.

Gerry HarpDr. Gerald Harp is working on projects to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and studies of the interstellar medium using radio astronomy imaging and power signal processing computers. The Allen Array (ATA) is a unique radio telescope in Northern California, simultaneously performing both SETI searches and make radio astronomy observations. The intern will work with ATA and its data products and will be responsible for novel observations and analysis of the results. These results contribute to novel research going on at the SETI Institute, including everything from array calibration to optimize ATA sensitivity to applications of new techniques for discovering alien signals using ultra-fast numerical processing.

A Search for Dyson Sphere civilizations based on WISE data and SETI observations at the Allen Telescope Array

Join a team of committed and energetic scientists and engineers to gather and analyze astronomical observations in search of extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). As hypothesized by Freeman Dyson, a civilization only slightly advanced beyond our own could harnass a substantial fraction of the energy of their own star by surrounding it with light collectors. After use, the collected energy is likely to be radiated in the infrared, allow such civilizations to appear as "very-red" sources in infrared surveys like that from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Join the SETI Institute this summer as we undertake a follow-up of WISE candidate Dyson Spheres by searching for artificial signals arriving from these sources.

Qualifications : The student should have strong interest in advanced computing for analysis of large astronomical datasets. Familiarity with Linux operating system and command-line scripting is beneficial. This project offers opportunities to process big data and use state of the art machine learning tools for signal discovery -- a great base for the modern job market. Suitable for a student who is interested in astronomy, SETI, and radio telescopes. This project is hosted at SI.

Peter JenniskensDr. Peter Jenniskens performs airborne and ground-based observations of natural and artificial meteors, including meteor showers, fireballs and the reentry of spacecraft ( Recent projects included a ground-based meteoroid orbit survey to bring in focus the minor meteor showers in the sky and find their parent bodies ( This project is a surveillance of the night sky from three sites with video security cameras. The student will work with Dr. Jenniskens to run the network and analyze the meteor videos collected over the previous year, calculate the meteoroid's direction of motion and speed, and search for new meteor showers and associated parent comets. Suggested reading: "Meteor Showers and their Parent Comets" by Cambridge University Press.

Qualifications This project is suitable for a student interested in astronomy and astrophysics, particularly those interested in gaining research experience in preparation for a post-graduate career in planetary astronomy. The project is located at SETI Institute.

Franck MarchisDr. Franck Marchis studies the solar system using mainly ground-based telescopes equipped with adaptive optics (AO). More recently he has been also involved in the definition of a new generation of AOs for 8 -10 m class telescopes and future Extremely Large Telescopes. He has developed algorithms to process and enhance the quality of images, both astronomical and biological, using fluorescence microscopy. He is currently involved in the development of the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), an extreme AO system for the Gemini South telescope which is capable of imaging and record spectra of exoplanets orbiting around nearby stars. The detection of Exoplanets, or planets around other stars, the grail of modern astronomy, is not an easy task due to the faintness of the planet which is located very close to its bright host star.

The GPI instrument ( had its successful first light in November 2013 and additional data will be taken in the first half of 2014. This is a unique instrument specifically built for the hunt for Jupiter-like planets around nearby stars. A large consortium of 100 researchers located across the American continent developed the instrument and its complex observing and data processing pipeline, and will soon initiate an observing campaign. The student will join the consortium by working with Franck Marchis and Bruce Macintosh (Professor at Stanford University) on the analysis of new data, including calibration data to understand the limit and performance of the instruments and scientific observations.

Qualifications: The student should have a moderate to high level of computer experience. Meticulous attention to detail is necessary, as are solid math skills through at least trigonometry. Some programming experience (particularly using IDL and Python) and familiarity or coursework in astronomy (particularly the Solar System, telescopes, and the electromagnetic spectrum) would be beneficial. This project is suitable for a student interested in astronomy, planetary science, ground-telescope observations and data processing and analysis. S/He will be located at the SETI Institute.

Jeonghee RhoDr. Jeonghee Rho studies supernovae and their remnants to investigate the origin of dust and molecules in the early and local Universe. Supernovae play a key role in the chemical and dust budget of galaxies, producing heavy elements and dust in their ejecta and processing dust. These explosions light up regions of stellar birth, trigger the next generation of star formation, return solid material to the gas phase and create the elements necessary for life. Infrared imaging and spectroscopy provide direct information on the composition, amount, and distribution of molecules and dust in the remnants of supernovae.

Dr. Rho and her collaborators have performed infrared observations of young nearby supernova remnants using the Spitzer and Herschel space telescopes. These observations, as well as grounds-based observations, have demonstrated the presence of significant
amounts of molecules and dust in SN ejecta. One potential project for a student working with Dr. Rho is to study molecule formation and destruction in SN ejecta and heating and cooling in the interstellar medium by using near-infrared observations of a more varied sample of supernova remnants. The data analysis component includes data from ground-based telescopes such as Palomar (, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile (CTIO; and the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT;

The student will participate in studying the astrochemisty of molecules by identifying ejecta emission, and investigate the physical conditions for different explosion types in parallel with our on-going study of cold supernova dust from archival Herschel data.

Qualifications: This project is suitable for a student interested in astronomy and astrophysics, with interests in both theory and observation. Basic coursework in astronomy and chemistry will be useful. The project is located at both SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center.

Jason RoweDr. Jason Rowe studies the characteristics and dynamics of extrasolar planets using the Kepler spacecraft. The project with Dr. Rowe will be to hunt through photometric lightcurves to find long period planets - the most rare planets that Kepler can find. These planets will inform us about the statistics and characteristics of the outer regions of distant solar systems. The project will involve using existing computer codes and programs to plot, search, inspect and manipulate time-series data. There is no lack of observations as Kepler has observed over 180 000 stars over 4 years! We are searching for a needle in a haystack. The student will also learn about the nature of stars, stellar activity and variability from visual inspection and also get an opportunity to discover a new planet.

Qualifications This project is great for someone with a genuine interest in astronomy and astrophysics with a focus on extrasolar planets. The proposed work can be very tedious, but with some ingenuity processes could be automated and improved. A student familiar with Linux/Unix or OS/X command-line tools, who is well organized and keeps good notes, is best suited for this project. Facilities at SI and ARC will be used.

Planetary Science and the Search for Life in the Solar System

Adrian BrownDr. Adrian Brown want to answer the question: How fast does ice grow on Mars? Mars is an icy and cold planet, rich in water and carbon dioxide ice. But even today it is still active - and the polar regions are the most active parts of the planet today. Scientists at the SETI Institute have used imaging spectroscopy data from Mars Reconnassance Orbiter data to find that water ice crystals appear to grow in the summer in the north pole of Mars - but we don't know if this is due to growth of new ice or uncovering of old ice.

Your project, should you choose it, would be to use computer software to model the growth of water ice grains, and working closely with your mentor, Dr. Adrian Brown, you would work to uncover one of the most puzzling questions on Mars today - is it warm enough for water ice crystals to melt?

The experience you have will equip you with the skills of physical Martian or terrestrial snowpack modeling, computer programming and how to work with recent Martian datasets. You will attend a Mars conference to present your work and talk with other Mars scientists.

Qualifications: This project would suit someone interested in Mars who is a geology, computer science or physics major, interested in learning more about computer modeling of climate systems, and wanting to learn more about dynamic processes that are now shaping the Red Planet in the polar regions. The project is at SI.

Friedemann FreundDr. Friedemann Freund studies oxidation processes in the Earth’s crust, at the ground-to-air interface and at the rock-to-water interface. The oxidizing agents are electronic charge carriers that lie dormant in essentially all crustal rocks. However, they “wake up” when stresses are applied. The charge carriers flow out of the stressed rock volume into adjacent unstressed rocks. They traverse meters of rock in the lab and kilometers out in the field. They are defect electrons or positive holes, e.g. an electronic state associated with O– in a matrix of O2 –. When these charge carriers cross a rock–water interface, they oxidize H2O to H2O2. These O– should be able to carry out many more oxidation reactions, including those that partially oxidize organics or affect the chemisorption of noble gases in the soil such as radioactive radon. This project is of broad scientific interest spanning the range from astrobiology (oxidation of the early Earth and evolution of early Life) to present-day geophysical phenomena linked to impending seismic activity.

The project with Dr. Freund will primarily involve laboratory experiments, investigating mechanical, electromagnetic, and electrostatic effects observed in various rocks under stress.

Qualifications Background in physics, chemistry and geology. Knowledge of LabVIEW as a data acquisition program would be useful and knowledge of Matlab or Mathematica would be a plus. This project is suitable for a physics, geology or engineering student broadly interested in early Earth, early life, geophysics and planetary geology. Laboratory facilities at SI and ARC will be used.

Virginia GulickDr. Virginia Gulick is a planetary geologist with multiple interests. As a member of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera team she studies geomorphic and hydrologic processes on Mars and compares them to analogs on Earth. She is also interested in instrument and software development aimed at helping to improve the science return of future planetary missions and terrestrial research. She also leads a software development effort that facilitates greater involvement of the public in the scientific discovery process.

1) Fluvial and hydrothermal studies using HiRISE images and Digital Elevation Maps, combined with CTX, HRSC or other data sets. These studies are focused mostly on the formation of gullies and other fluvial landforms on Mars. Terrestrial analog sites or hydrologic or landform models will be used to illuminate the importance of various processes as well as understanding the implications for paleoclimatic change. Opportunities are also available for HiRISE science operations support, including help with science planning and targeting, and analysis of acquired data. Geology background especially in geomorphology and hydrology is desired. Experience working with ENVI, Matlab, ISIS and python helpful.

2) Developing science analysis algorithms for future planetary missions. We use innovative laboratory techniques to study about a thousand rock and mineral samples. We test Ramen spectrometers to identify instrument and automated computer mineral identification algorithms that might be used on future Mars rover missions. Student would work to acquire new images of our samples using a better imaging system and new Raman spectra of our samples. A well-qualified student could also work to improve our automated mineral identification algorithms. Student with experience in computer programming (C++), matlab, or rock sample analysis preferred.

3) Developing a new collaborative science crowdsourcing website. This project aims to go beyond our original crowdsourcing websites Mars Clickworkers (developed in 2000) and HiRISE Clickworkers site (2007-2010) to a new level of collaborative science. 

Need students able to do web design and web tools development in JAVA or PHP. Some geology background is also helpful.

These projects are located at Ames.

Oana MarcuDr. Oana Marcu’s research interests include molecular adaptations of cells to environmental stress, including organisms in extreme habitats on Earth, as analogs for Mars environments that could harbor life. Her research group focuses on the role of cellular oxidation in adaptation and evolution.

1)Two projects are available:
a wet laboratory project to look at priming of stress responses in prokaryotes from Mojave desert and the eukaryotic algae. The question is whether common cellular pathways of response to environmental stress may have been recruited in evolution. The student will be involved in molecular biology work (quantifying gene expression, enzymatic assays and oxidative damage).

2)a project at the interface of biology and astronomy, looking at limits of habitability and abiotic stress responses. The student will work extremophiles in a wet lab setting, and with exoplanet data.
Both projects will require participation in an interactive group who work in overlapping fields (molecular biology, microbial ecology, mathematics, astronomy).

(Project 1) Prior coursework in molecular biology and experience with laboratory work is required, preferably molecular biology/genetics. The project is suitable for a student interested in astrobiology, molecular biology with a strong evolutionary biology component, and it includes laboratory work. The laboratory is at ARC in the Exobiology Branch.
(Project 2) Prior coursework in geobiochemistry/biology/astronomy. Some experience with extremophiles preferred. This project is suitable for a student interested in exoplanets and astrobiology.

Cynthia PhillipsDr. Cynthia Phillips is a planetary geologist with a background in image processing. A student working with Dr. Phillips would be involved in a project on the planetary geology either of the icy satellites of the outer solar system, or of Mars. The focus of Dr. Phillips’ work is the study of ongoing geologic activity on other worlds of our solar system and the ties to current liquid water and potential astrobiology.
Outer solar system satellites are of astrobiological interest, since it is plausible that many of them harbor oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, has a surface covered with a layer about 100 km thick made up of a solid ice shell and a liquid ocean below. The surface is covered with cracks and ridges, and disrupted regions, and the few impact craters point to a surface that has been geologically active fairly recently (i.e. in the last tens of millions of years). It is not implausible, therefore, that such activity could continue to today. Europa’s surface was mapped in the 1990’s by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, and more recently was flown past by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2007, on its way to Jupiter. Similar images and maps were also taken of Io, Ganymede, and Callisto by both Galileo and New Horizons.

One potential project for a student working with Dr. Phillips will be to analyze images of outer solar system satellites taken by the Galileo, Cassini, and/or New Horizons spacecraft. The focus will be on active geologic processes such as change detection, volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io, and crater relaxation and tectonics on satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. A separate potential project is the study of active features on Mars using data from multiple missions. The student will learn how to use ISIS, a specialized planetary image processing program, as well as other software tools, and will primarily use a unix environment.

Qualifications An interest and basic coursework in geology is recommended, though not required. Experience with unix systems, and with digital image manipulation programs such as Photoshop or Gimp, will also be useful. This project is suitable for a student with interests in computer modeling, imaging processing, and planetary geology. The project is at SI.

Pablo SobronDr. Pablo Sobron has strong interests in robotic space exploration and comparative analogue science - the study of places on Earth that are similar to environments on other planets and moons. Current projects include development of laser-based instruments and data processing tools for missions to explore the Solar System, and on Mars fundamental research.

In planetary surface exploration, combining measurements recorded with different instruments can provide a rapid mineralogical/chemical evaluation of targets that are critical for selecting samples to be eventually collected for sample return purposes, for selecting sample sites to be drilled in the search for other species (e.g., organics), or for enabling the development of more advanced, unsupervised exploration and operational routines in landed spacecrafts. New approaches for data processing are needed in order to find tools for processing large amounts of data efficiently and, by means of data fusion, obtain a single result. Data fusion here refers to the acquisition, processing, and combination of data.

The student will work with Dr. Pablo Sobron in the development of data fusion strategies for the advanced processing of laser Raman and LIBS data. The student will use state-of-the-art instrumentation to collect Raman and LIBS from samples analogue to Mars. He or she will process these data and critically evaluate the performance of several data fusion tools.

Qualifications background in spectroscopy and knowledge of Matlab, C, or Visual Basic would be helpful. This project is suitable for a physics or engineering student with interest in sensing technologies and intelligent data processing. Facilities at SI and ARC will be used.