URSA Project Descriptions and Mentors List 2012-2013

Undergraduate Research at the SETI Institute in Astrobiology

Below are descriptions of some past URSA projects. The 2012-2013 URSA research projects will be similar to the projects below, although some new projects are possible and not all projects are offered every year. Please read the list below, and in your personal statement, please refer to one or more of the listed projects and describe how you are interested or qualified for it.

Jon Richards – open source computer programming

Gerry Harp – programming, ATA software

Rachel Mastrapa - computer programming – spectral database

Franck Marchis - astronomy, observations, asteroids, programming, databases, web development

Janice Bishop – geology, remote sensing, lab and image processing

Friedemann Freund & Vern Vanderbilt – physics, remote sensing, engineering

Mark Showalter / Mitch Gordon - programming for PDS node

Richard Quinn – chemistry, lab work

Jon Richards

Jon Richards is a Senior Software Engineer working on the SonATA project, our extraterrestrial signal search software. We have recently released the SonATA source code to the open source community. We now have a whole new set of challenges to maximize the effectiveness and contributions of the open source community. See setiQuest.org for the SonATA project details.

The project will involve becoming an active member of the SonATA open source development community, helping us create, build, and manage the community. The selected candidate will spearhead the engagement and management of developers of the open source community who wish to help, as well as be an active code developing participant. At the end of the internship the goal will be to have a stronger open source project with a larger open source developer community, as well as an improved set of social media practices within the SETI SonATA project. The student will learn how to work and utilize their creativity on a project that is both a production project and an open source project, as well as gain open source project management skills.

Qualifications: The student must have an interest in open source software development and community management. Knowledge of computer programming is required, preferably C/C++. Must be comfortable developing in a Linux environment and be familiar with software development (editing files, make, configure, gcc, etc.).

Gerry Harp

Dr. Gerry Harp: Develop and apply new ETI search algorithms at the SETI Institute. The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) is a long-awaited hope for scientists and all earthlings (http://setiquest.org/). The SETI Institute (SI) in Mountain View, California is at the forefront of this search. Thanks to improving technology , SI's search for ETI becomes ever faster and more comprehensive. New searches that were not feasible in the past are now being undertaken using data from both recent and archival observations at the Allen Telescope Array. Our group has an opening for an undergraduate intern starting in Fall '11, working with scientists and engineers to develop, implement, and then run ETI search software in ongoing SETI research. Become intimately involved with SETI and you could be present when the signal is discovered!

Qualifications: The successful intern is comfortable working with computers and eager to learn Linux OS, shell-scripting, and depending on knowledge-level, C-based or MatLab codes for data analysis.

Rachel Mastrapa

Dr. Rachel Mastrapa is a planetary scientist with 10 years of experience creating Solar System ice analogs in the lab, where she has used IR spectroscopy to study how the phases of water ice vary with temperature and radiation history. Water ice spectra have been obtained from many outer Solar System objects, where they have proved useful in determining surface properties such as temperatures, grain sizes, the presence of trace contaminants, and the recent thermal and radiation history of the surface. Since water is one of the primary requirements for life, studying the presence and state of water ice in the outer Solar System is one astrobiological way to look for habitable environments. However, many observed spectral features remain unidentified due to a lack of laboratory data or a systematic way to access the available data. A student working with Dr. Mastrapa would build a searchable database of spectral laboratory measurements. The completed database will be used to help identify unknown features in planetary datasets.

Qualifications : This project is for a student with a background in computer science, or any science major with a significant programming background. Experience with infrared spectroscopy and MySQL databases is desirable but not required.

Franck Marchis

Dr. Franck Marchis is an astronomer who studies asteroids, planetary satellites, and other Solar System objects. He is also an avid blogger and social media expert. Dr. Marchis would like a student interested in helping the SETI Institute to redesign and maintain the Cosmic Diary blog currently hosted on our server. The student will also help implementing new tools in the server such as interfacing the blogger Twitter account.

The student will be also in charge of completing our VOBAD database containing data of multiple asteroid observations collected with Adaptive Optics Systems, Hubble Space Telescope and medium-sized telescopes.

Qualifications: The student should have a good training in PHP and MySQL and a strong interest in astronomy. S/he will learn how to manage a Wordpress server and process telescope observations.

Janice Bishop

Dr. Janice Bishop studies the geology, mineralogy, and surface composition of the planet Mars using remote sensing and laboratory data. The student project includes a combination of lab experiments and analysis of martian data in order to enable students to try out several aspects of martian remote sensing research. One task will involve learning to use ITT’s ENVI software for image processing and analysis. This software will be used to process the raw CRISM images of Mars into final products that are used for research. This part of the project will also include analyzing a collection of CRISM images associated with specific research areas of the group in order to document where specific aqueous minerals are present. The student will also learn about reflectance spectroscopy theory and how to measure reflectance spectra of samples in the lab. The student will assist with archiving spectral data of analog materials for comparison with the CRISM data.

Qualifications: The ideal candidate would have at least one year each of chemistry, physics, and geology or mineralogy and an interest in the planet Mars. This project is suitable for a student interested in mineralogy, remote sensing, or planetary geology.

Friedemann Freund and Vern Vanderbilt

When rocks are stressed, electronic charge carriers are activated which have the ability to flow out of the stressed sub-volume and to spread into the surrounding unstressed rocks. They travel fast and far, meters in the laboratory, kilometers in the field. The discovery of these charge carriers has already led to surprising insights into the processes that occur deep in the Earth where, prior to major earthquakes, huge volumes of rocks experience increasing tectonic stresses. The outflow of charge can be very large and continue for extended periods of time. Before major earthquakes, the arrival of positive charge carriers at the Earth’s surface can trigger various electromagnetic (EM) processes that can be detected remotely from satellite.

Stress-activated electronic charge carriers in rocks had a major impact on many processes throughout Earths’ past history and are expected to be abundantly available also on Mars, probably on the Moon, and on other Solar System solid bodies.

Project 1: Laboratory measurements. This project will include, for instance, studies of how the stress-activated rock currents flow through granular materials, through rocks soaked with water or brine, and through permafrost.

Qualifications: The best candidate for this project would be a student in physics, electrical or mechanical engineering, or geology, who is interested in laboratory work and who is not afraid to get his or her hands dirty in handling chunks of rocks. There will be a need to do electrical measurements at the level of pico-amperes and to learn LabVIEW. There will also be an opportunity to learn about larger questions related to solid state physics, geophysics, and planetary science.

Project 2: Remote sensing. This project will analyze satellite and aircraft data collected by radar and optical sensors measuring regions of the Earth prone to earthquakes. The project will employ spatial and time series analysis techniques to identify the various EM earthquake precursor signals in the noisy data, develop algorithms to enhance the signal to noise ratio, identify sources of error and estimate error rates. The long term vision is to provide well-understood input data to an earthquake forecasting model, predict impending earthquakes, and allow warnings to be issued days before earthquakes strike. This research may contribute to saving lives and property in California and around the globe.

Qualifications: The best candidate for this project would be an upper level student in electrical engineering, applied mathematics or physics who is familiar with image processing of remotely sensed data using the ENVI/IDL and/or MATLAB software packages. There will also be an opportunity to learn about larger questions related to solid state physics and geophysics.

Dr. Mark Showalter

SETI Institute hosts an archive of data sets relating to the ring-moon systems of the outer planets, a component of NASA's "Planetary Data System" or PDS. The archive contains hundreds of thousands of images, spectra, etc. obtained from spacecraft such as Cassini, Galileo, New Horizons, the Hubble Space Telescope, and Voyager. We are seeking a programmer to help us with a variety of tasks related to supporting this archive. The programmer's primary task will be to develop and maintain software to handle the "metadata" describing individual products in the PDS archive. We are devising new standards to maintain this information using the "eXtensible Markup Language," XML, which is rapidly becoming a world-wide standard for how information is passed around the Internet.

Qualifications: We seek a candidate with a strong background in computer science and a demonstrated ability to work on a reasonably large software project. The PDS managers Drs. Mark Showalter and Mitch Gordon will work closely with the programmer to define the details of the software components needed. Ideally, the candidate should be familiar with, or at least enthusiastic to learn about, the Python programming language, XML, databases, and the Unix/Macintosh environment.

Richard Quinn

Dr. Richard Quinn studies the survivability of microbes under harsh conditions in space or on Mars. Past student projects with Dr. Quinn have included:

- Characteristics of Perchlorate photostability under simulated Martian conditions, with applications to the detection of organics in the results from the Mars Phoenix and Viking landers.

- The space environment viability of organics. This projects includes laboratory simulations of the Space Environment Viability of Organics (SEVO) experiment to aid in the analysis and interpretation of the flight data returned from the O/OREOS (Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses) nanosatellite mission.

Qualifications: Two semesters of general chemistry with lab are required. This project is suitable for a student interested in astrobiology, chemistry, and engineering, and will use laboratory facilities at NASA Ames Research Center.