THOMAS J. WDOWIAK, Associate Professor

(205) 934-8036,

What is interstellar dust and did life exist on Mars?

The mission of the UAB Astrophysics and the Instrumentation for Space Exploration Laboratories is to understand organic dust of interstellar space and its transformation into solar system materials, and to participate in the exploration of Mars from the perspective of exobiology.  As a CoInvestigator on the Mars 2003 Athena mission with dual-rovers to be landed January 4 and February 9, 2004, I am investigating Mössbauer spectroscopy for understanding conditions during the early history of Mars and assisting in searching for evidence of past life on that planet.  An exciting project for future landed rover missions is participation with Washington University, Cornell, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the development of a laser-Raman spectrometer for analysis of minerals and searching for carbonaceous residues of ancient life.  Using Raman spectroscopy, a UAB-UCLA team has been able to identify organic matter at the cell level for fossils hundreds of millions, and even billions, of years old.  This capability surely will be useful if candidates for martian fossils are ever brought to Earth! Our interests also extends to Jupiter's moon Europa, and in that regard we are trying to figure out how to best utilize time-of-flight mass spectroscopy to, not only be able to analyze the smaller molecules of that world's icy crust, but also search for very large molecules, biopolymers, should they be brought to the surface by upwellings from an ocean below through the cracked ice crust.  If such biopolymers are present, it would tell us that life exists in a sub-ice ocean, much like sea foam at the beach, consisting of biopolymers, is a signature of terrestrial ocean life.
    Our Laboratory Astrophysics projects, focusing on the hydrocarbon portion of interstellar dust, indicate the naphthalene molecule is the basis for formation of more complex dust material.  These experiments help interpret observations with telescopes, including those utilized in space.  By subjecting our laboratory versions of soot-like interstellar molecules, that can form at the end of a star's life, to high temperature water we have found that they are transformed into the kind of organic matter found in meteorites known as carbonaceous chondrites.  This suggests that the mineral bodies, tens of kilometers across and called planetesimals, that were formed at the beginning of the Solar System, were cosmic pressure-cooker "crockpots".  Meteorites originate from asteroids, which are leftover planetesimals from that period in that they never became part of a planet like Earth or Mars!
    Speaking of asteroids, an interesting project, for a decade now, has been to understand the details of the impact event that rendered a lot of life on Earth extinct, including knocking off the dinosaurs.  A result is the finding that a thin iron-rich layer, which appears to have been spread over the entire planet 65 million years ago, is what remains of the actual asteroid or comet that did the extinction deed.
    Having been a scientist since the age of seven, which means I've been doing it for 54 years, I, each month, become "Tommy Test Tubes" in the Saturday edition of the Birmingham News / Post Herald presenting a full-page, in color, kid's section of science experiments, all based on, and tested by, my childhood experiences.  The experiments utilize things found in the home, at the supermarket, home improvements store, and of course Radio Shack.  The very first experiment actually used the unprinted bottom of the newspaper to separate out colored molecules with vinegar by chromatography.  The second experiment showed how to transform a shoebox, a CD with case, some stiff paper, a stick, rubber band and tape into a spectroscope capable of showing the presence of the atoms in the outer layers of the Sun (and in fluorescent lights, street lights, neon signs, etc.).
    The research is supported by NASA programs including the Athena 2003 mission, Exobiology, Origins of Solar Systems, Planetary Instrument Definition and Development, and Space Astronomy Research and Analysis.


Recent Publications: