“We are looking for the conditions of life, rather than life itself,” said Douglas Whittet, director of the New York Center for Astrobiology and a Rensselaer professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy. The center opened in 2008 with support from NASA.
One interesting finding from its research thus far is that stars aid in the process of forming the more complex matter found on planets and in life.
“You need energy to drive the chemistry. A star itself can cook simple molecules into something more interesting,” Whittet said.
The new four-year $630,000 grant will allow the center to expand operations.
“It will allow us to support some more collaborations, which in turn lets us acquire and analyze more data,” Whittet said.
Researchers at the center study the chemical, physical, and geological conditions on Earth that gave birth to life. That information, in turn, is used to search for similar conditions elsewhere – on Mars and other bodies in our solar system, and on planets orbiting other stars.
“A lot of organic molecules present on Earth may have been delivered shortly after it was formed. The evidence for this comes from meteorites, which contain amino acids,” Whittet said. “We aim to find out what was happening in the solar system 4.5 billion years ago when it was formed. When and how was this matter synthesized, and how common is it?”
The researchers look for clues within young solar systems, where stars are surrounded by molecular clouds or pre-planetary disks that have not yet coalesced into planets.
The key to their research is spectroscopy – or light signature – of the clouds and disks. The early universe was composed of hydrogen and helium, from which other elements were formed, and later combined into molecules in interstellar clouds. By examining the light signature of the material, researchers can determine which chemicals are present in a particular cloud or pre-planetary disk.
“You use the star as a source of radiation. The material between you and the star is absorbing some of it. We look at the absence of light caused by the material,” Whittet said.
Whittet said researchers are currently analyzing data gathered from the Spitzer Space Telescope – an infrared telescope orbiting the sun that gathered data from 2003 to 2009.
“There’s a huge archive of data that’s being analyzed, and the grant will afford us access to more of that material,” Whittet said.
Already that material has yielded the insight that stars play a role in the creation of more complex matter. Whittet explained that molecular clouds around stars mature into pre-planetary disks and then planets. Complex matter is found in increasing abundance as the stages progress.
“Organic molecules such as hydrocarbons and alcohols are more common in pre-planetary disks compared with molecular clouds,” Whittet said. “These molecules form with the help of energy from the star.”
A less promising finding – at least from the standpoint of finding life elsewhere in the universe – is the relative scarcity of complex hydrocarbons.
“The most common material we’ve found is carbon dioxide, which is not very useful in making life,” Whittet said. “It would be a lot more interesting if the carbon were going into hydrocarbons, which are a stepping point to much more complicated molecules.”
Mary Martialay | Newswise Science News
Two dimensional circuit with magnetic quasi-particles
22.01.2018 | Technische Universität Kaiserslautern
Meteoritic stardust unlocks timing of supernova dust formation
19.01.2018 | Carnegie Institution for Science
On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered experimental techniques that are nowadays standard in modern quantum optical laboratories. This shows how machines could play a more creative role in research in the future.
We carry smartphones in our pockets, the streets are dotted with semi-autonomous cars, but in the research laboratory experiments are still being designed by...
What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...
For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.
Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...
At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.
No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.
Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...
08.01.2018 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
22.01.2018 | Materials Sciences
22.01.2018 | Earth Sciences
22.01.2018 | Life Sciences