Ph.D. candidates Asmita Banerjee and Damanveer Grewal are awarded highly coveted NASA student research grants. Only about 12 percent of almost 1000 grant proposals submitted to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate program entitled “Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology” (FINESST) are funded.
Students create and write their own research proposals and must demonstrate that they contribute to NASA’s science, technology and exploration goals in the broad areas of Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science and Astrophysics.
Both of the funded proposals were submitted to Planetary Science.
NASA’s Planetary Science Division sponsors research that addresses the broad strategic objective to “Ascertain the content, origin, and evolution of the Solar System and the potential for life elsewhere.”
- Explore and observe the objects in the Solar System to understand how they formed and evolve.
- Advance the understanding of how the chemical and physical processes in the Solar System operate, interact and evolve.
- Explore and find locations where life could have existed or could exist today.
- Improve our understanding of the origin and evolution of life on Earth to guide our search for life elsewhere.
- Identify and characterize objects in the Solar System that pose threats to Earth or offer resources for human exploration.
The Breakdown: 966 proposals submitted to four science, technology and exploration areas
Earth Science- of 428 submitted only 59 funded
Planetary Science- of 294 submitted only 29 funded
Astrophysics- of 188 submitted only 21 funded
Heliophysics- of 56 submitted only 12 funded
Damanveer Grewal’s proposal titled Elemental and isotopic fractionation of nitrogen during core-mantle differentiation in rocky bodies was submitted to the Planetary Science sub-category “Emerging Worlds.” His research could potentially address a wide range of problems, from the formation and differentiation of the planets, to questions regarding the origin of the Earth’s atmosphere, life on Earth, and subsequent habitability. The proposal would bring important insights on the origin of isotopic variations in volatile elements such as carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen in our Solar System. Specifically, Grewal’s experiments aim to constrain the fate of nitrogen during early differentiation of rocky planets to better understand the origin of that and other bio-essential volatile elements in the inner part of our Solar System and beyond. The experimentally derived constraints will then be compared against known nitrogen abundance and isotopic composition from various classes of planetary building blocks (meteorites) to predict the origin and distribution of nitrogen on Earth and rocky bodies like Mars, Mercury, Vesta, the Angrite (meteorite) parent body and the Moon.
Asmita Banerjee’s grant is based on a project outside the focus of her primary Ph.D. research.
“This is totally different from my clumped isotope work but will be conducted along with the ice core work. It stemmed from a class project I did and got super excited about,” says Banerjee.
Her project, titled Constraining the role of dyke swarms as a phosphorus source during the Great Oxidation Event, but submitted to “Habitable Worlds”, is described as “innovative” because it combines the fields of volcanology, biogeochemistry and planetary science. Complementing her primary project to understand how oxygen evolves in response to global atmospheric circulation, she is delving deeper into Earth’s history. Banerjee wants to try and understand the initial rise of oxygen on Earth. While Grewal’s research looks at the origin of volatile elements in the Earth, Banerjee’s work will assess the fluctuations of those elements (specifically phosphorus) already present in rocks near the surface and their role during key periods in the development of oxygen and proliferation of life. Specifically, Banerjee will look at 2.5 billlion year old dyke swarms from the Canadian shield, formed contemporaneously with Earth’s first rise of oxygen, to constrain how much weathering would be needed to supply the right amount phosphorus to account for both biologic and non-biologically induced increases in oxygen. Her experiments would also provide new insights into surficial weathering processes operating during Earth’s early oxygen-poor, pre-life environment. Similar dyke swarms can be found on Mars and Venus, so like Grewal’s work, her research may help us identify signals of habitability elsewhere in our solar system and beyond.