College of Science

Jason Alonzo

Jason preparing an OREOcube sample
Jason preparing an OREOcube sample inside the deposition system, placing an optical SiO2 window on the disk.

Jason is an electrical engineering major who is concentrating in computer software communications and control systems. He is also pursuing a minor in physics for his passion in astronomy. He spent the summer of 2012 in the CAMPARE program working at NASA Ames Research Center: Astrobiology Institute (NAI) through the SETI Institute. His project, ORganic Exposure in Orbit cube (OREOcube), consisted of developing sample in the laboratory that was used to study the reaction of an inorganic surface in contact with an organic in a Mars-like environment. Jason hopes to eventually start a career at JPL or NASA Ames improving the communication software for space flight equipment. This is his story.

Jason Alonzo is operating an X-Ray Photoelectron Spectrometer
Jason is operating an X-Ray Photoelectron Spectrometer (XPS) at NASA Ames Research Center.

In the summer of 2012, I received the privilege to conduct research through the CAMPARE program with the SETI Institute at NASA Ames Research Center: Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Focused as an electrical engineering student at CalPoly Pomona, I knew this field would be intimidating because the other inters joining are astrophysics majors and I had an amateur base in astrophysics in comparison. Upon discussing details with SETI, I learned my project was unique because it evolved engineering, physics, biology, astronomy, and profound knowledge of chemistry for which I was up for the challenge. This undergraduate opportunity was once in a life time and to be working on an actual experiment that is investigating how life survives in various space environments was amazing. For my research internship, I was under the mentorship of Dr. Richard Quinn, Senior Research Scientist at SETI, who is leading the US-laboratory investigation for OREOcube in collaboration with NASA, ESA, and others institutes.

Mars is an interesting planet to investigate because scientists have found it extremely difficult to discover complex compounds on the surface. So it brings up the question, are the iron-oxides throughout the surface in connection with the extreme environment somehow sterilizing the surface of biological life? OREOcube (ORganic Exposure in Orbit cube) is an astrobiology experiment that is under development for the ISS (International Space Station). Jason Alonzo Jason is operating an X-Ray Photoelectron Spectrometer (XPS) at NASA Ames Research Center. Its objective is to study the photochemical reaction of inorganic surface in contact with an organic mineral while in space. The samples will be placed in a compact Ultra Violet- Visible- Near Inferred spectrometer outside the ISS to be exposed, monitored for 12-months, and then return to Earth for further analysis. Performing this type of astrobiology experiment in situ is great because it provides real time analysis, and step into low cost nanotechnology experiments to understand how life can survive in hostile environments.

Jason Alonzo at Hat Creek Radio Observatory
L to R: Jason (CCP), Aaron (CCP) and Rachel (Wellesley) at Hat Creek Radio Observatory. The Allen Telescope Array antennas are in the background.

My project was focused on the preliminary studies for the OREOcube experiment that will take place on the ISS. The OREOcube samples are prepared using a deposition system that provides a controlled environment to prevent contamination. An optical window was used to capture the deposited layer inside the system. To begin the procedure, we brought down the pressure inside the chambers to < 3.0 x 10-6 Torr, and continued with a thermo-evaporation procedure (sublimation) of the compound. Iron was first layer deposited and since we are interested in investigating the different iron-oxides on Mars the chemistry needed to be altered. The iron windows were baked in a chemical oven for 4 hours at two separate events to obtain the different iron-oxides. Raising the temperature to 175°C annealed magnetite (Fe3O4), and the second set was changing to 575°C annealing hematite (Fe2O3). The modified windows were position back into the deposition system and applying the same deposition process the organic thin layer was deposited over the iron-oxide. When analyzing the absorbance bands for the numerous OREOcube samples it's verified that the significant bands are retained. This proves the overlaid process was a success and the samples will be placed into the Mars simulation chamber for exposure monitoring. This summer research internship has provided me a distinct understanding of the type of efforts and collaborations that are involved in an international experiment. Working with scientists and engineers from SETI, NASA Ames, ESA, and other institutes have benefited me by exposing the aspects of research that intertwine because there is no reward in specializing in one particular subject. Most importantly, communication and wide-range of general scientific knowledge benefits the entire teams' efforts in choosing candidate for an experiment which will ultimately lead to a failed or successful outcome. This has been truly an amazing experience from developing lifelong friendships with colleagues from around the world to working alongside research scientist.