Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Astrobiologists discover 'sweet spots' for the formation of complex organic molecules in the galaxy

03.11.2011
Scientists within the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have compiled years of research to help locate areas in outer space that have extreme potential for complex organic molecule formation.

The scientists searched for methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. Their results have implications for determining the origins of molecules that spark life in the cosmos.

The findings will be published in the Nov. 20 edition of the Astrophysical Journal in a paper titled "Observational constraints on methanol production in interstellar and preplanetary ices." The work is collaboration between researchers at Rensselaer, NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, and Ohio State University.

"Methanol formation is the major chemical pathway to complex organic molecules in interstellar space," said the lead researcher of the study and director of the NASA-funded center, Douglas Whittet of Rensselaer. If scientists can identify regions where conditions are right for rich methanol production, they will be better able to understand where and how the complex organic molecules needed to create life are formed. In other words, follow the methanol and you may be able to follow the chemistry that leads to life.

Using powerful telescopes on Earth, scientists have observed large concentrations of simple molecules such as carbon monoxide in the clouds that give birth to new stars. In order to make more complex organic molecules, hydrogen needs to enter the chemical process. The best way for this chemistry to occur is on the surfaces of tiny dust grains in space, according to Whittet. In the right conditions, carbon monoxide on the surface of interstellar dust can react at low temperatures with hydrogen to create methanol (CH3OH). Methanol then serves as an important steppingstone to formation of the much more complex organic molecules that are required to create life. Scientists have known that methanol is out there, but to date there has been limited detail on where it is most readily produced.

What Whittet and his collaborators have discovered is that methanol is most abundant around a very small number of newly formed stars. Not all young stars reach such potential for organic chemistry. In fact, the range in methanol concentration varies from negligible amounts in some regions of the interstellar medium to approximately 30 percent of the ices around a handful of newly formed stars. They also discovered methanol for the first time in low concentrations (1 to 2 percent) in the cold clouds that will eventually give birth to new stars.

The scientists conclude in the paper that there is a "sweet spot" in the physical conditions surrounding some stars that accounts for the large discrepancy in methanol formation in the galaxy. The complexity of the chemistry depends on how fast certain molecules reach the dust grains surrounding new stars, according the Whittet. The rate of molecule accumulation on the particles can result in an organic boom or a literal dead end.

"If the carbon monoxide molecules build up too quickly on the surfaces of the dust grains, they don't get the opportunity to react and form more complex molecules. Instead, the molecules get buried in the ices and add up to a lot of dead weight," Whittet said. "If the buildup is too slow, the opportunities for reaction are also much lower."

This means that under the right conditions, the dust surrounding certain stars could hold greater potential for life than most of its siblings. The presence of high concentrations of methanol could essentially jumpstart the process to create life on the planets formed around certain stars.

The scientists also compared their results with methanol concentrations in comets to determine a baseline of methanol production in our own solar system.

"Comets are time capsules," Whittet said. "Comets can preserve the early history of our solar system because they contain material that hasn't changed since the solar system was formed." As such, the scientists could look at the concentrations of methanol in comets to determine the amount of methanol that was in our solar system at its birth.

What they found was that methanol concentrations at the birth of our solar system were actually closer to the average of what they saw elsewhere in interstellar space. Methanol concentrations in our solar system were fairly low, at only a few percent, compared to some of the other methanol-dense areas in the galaxy observed by Whittet and his colleagues.

"This means that our solar system wasn't particularly lucky and didn't have the large amounts of methanol that we see around some other stars in the galaxy," Whittet said.

"But, it was obviously enough for us to be here."

The results suggest that there could be solar systems out there that were even luckier in the biological game than we were, according to Whittet. As we look deeper into the cosmos, we may eventually be able to determine what a solar system bursting with methanol can do.

###
The New York Center for Astrobiology
Based within the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., the New York Center for Astrobiology is devoted to investigating the origins of life on Earth and the conditions that lead to formation of habitable planets in our own and other solar systems. Supported by NASA, the $7 million center is a member of NASA's Astrobiology Institute (NAI), and is a partnership between Rensselaer and the University at Albany, Syracuse University, the University of Arizona, and the University of North Dakota. Researchers and students within the center seek to understand the chemical, physical, and geological conditions of early Earth that set the stage for life on our planet. They also look beyond our home planet to investigate whether the processes that prepared the Earth for life could be replicated elsewhere — on Mars and other bodies in our solar system, for example, and on planets orbiting other stars.

Gabrielle DeMarco | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.rpi.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Ultra-compact phase modulators based on graphene plasmons
27.06.2017 | ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Sciences

nachricht Smooth propagation of spin waves using gold
26.06.2017 | Toyohashi University of Technology

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Collapse of the European ice sheet caused chaos

27.06.2017 | Earth Sciences

NASA sees quick development of Hurricane Dora

27.06.2017 | Earth Sciences

New method to rapidly map the 'social networks' of proteins

27.06.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>