“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
What happens when we heat the atomic lattice of a magnet all of a sudden?
17.07.2018 | Forschungsverbund Berlin
Subaru Telescope helps pinpoint origin of ultra-high energy neutrino
16.07.2018 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.
Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
17.07.2018 | Information Technology
17.07.2018 | Materials Sciences
17.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering