Astrobiology Analytical Lab at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Analysis of Volatile Organic Compounds in Specially Curated Lunar Samples: Insights into Amino Acid Formation and Curation Effects.

We propose to use state-of-the-art analytical techniques to determine the abundances of volatile precursors and amino acids in pristine lunar samples, and to determine the effect of curation under vacuum or in cold temperatures on preservation of these organic compounds.  Our proposed work addresses three key lunar and astrobiology science questions and three curation questions (Table 1). The availability of specially curated lunar samples that may preserve volatile organics, combined with modern analytical methods and sensitive instrumentation, offers a unique opportunity to examine questions of lunar volatile abundances and the identity of lunar amino acid precursors while simultaneously assessing the value of non-traditional curation methods to preserving science potential in returned samples. 
 
We will study both vacuum-sealed Apollo samples and frozen Apollo samples, as well as samples collected from similar locations but curated under standard conditions.  Our analyses will focus on the measurement of amino acids and a series of volatile organic compound classes that may serve as precursors to amino acids: amines, aldehydes, HCN, and carboxylic acids. We will use our established extraction, derivatization, and chromatographic-mass spectrometric methods to determine abundances and identities of these compounds and use this data to understand the distribution of these compounds in lunar regolith and the potential origins of previously detected amino acids in lunar samples. Our previous analyses of amino acids in lunar samples (Elsila et al., 2016) showed apparent contributions from both exogenous delivery and terrestrial contamination; the proposed work on specially curated samples will help to clarify the sources and formation pathways of these amino acids.
 
The results of this work will substantially impact our understanding of the identity, abundance, and origin of volatile organic compounds present on the surface of the Moon, as well as providing guidance on how to best preserve those compounds in future returned samples. 
 

Our proposed research focuses on the following key questions:
Science SQ1. What is the identity and abundance of volatile amino acid precursors in lunar regolith?
SQ2. Are volatile organics preserved in shadowed regions on the lunar surface?
SQ3. How are volatile organics distributed by depth on the lunar surface?
Curation CQ1. Are volatiles better preserved in samples stored frozen compared to standard curation?
CQ2. Are volatiles better preserved in samples in sealed vacuum than under standard curation?
CQ3. When and how was terrestrial contamination introduced to lunar samples?

Team members are from the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Contact Information: Jamie Elsila Cook, jamie.e.cook@nasa.gov

Goddard team

Pictured left to right: Danielle Simkus (post-doc), Jose Aponte, Jason Dworkin, Jamie Elsila, and Danny Glavin.