Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life

Just add water, gasses, and simple organic molecules 

Space news (July 27, 2015) – the search for life beyond Earth – a simple recipe for extraterrestrial life –

The simple building blocks of life could have traveled to Earth on icy grains of dust carried on asteroids and meteorites during the early moments of the Solar System.
The simple building blocks of life could have traveled to Earth on icy grains of dust carried on asteroids and meteorites during the early moments of the Solar System.

NASA scientists studying the origins of organic compounds important to the development of life on Earth think they’re on the trail of a cosmic “Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life”. Recent experiments conducted by astrobiologists working at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland indicate asteroids and meteorites could have been the source of complex organic compounds essential to the evolution of life on Earth. Essential organic compounds they have been able to reproduce in laboratory experiments from simpler organic compounds, water, and gasses in simulations of the space environments of meteorites and asteroids. 

“We found that the types of organic compounds in our laboratory-produced ices match very well to what is found in meteorites,” said Karen Smith of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This result suggests that these important organic compounds in meteorites may have originated from simple molecular ices in space. This type of chemistry may also be relevant for comets, which contain large amounts of water and carbon dioxide ices. These experiments show that vitamin B3 and other complex organic compounds could be made in space and it is plausible that meteorite and comet impacts could have added an extraterrestrial component to the supply of vitamin B3 on ancient Earth.”

“This work is part of a broad research program in the field of Astrobiology at NASA Goddard. We are working to understand the origins of biologically important molecules and how they came to exist throughout the Solar System and on Earth. The experiments performed in our laboratory demonstrate an important possible connection between the complex organic molecules formed in cold interstellar space and those we find in meteorites.”

The Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life

Deep within immense clouds of gas and dust created by exploding stars (supernovae) and the winds of red giant stars coming to the end of their days are countless dust grains. Many of these dust grains will end up part of asteroids and meteorites like the millions of bodies in the Main Asteroid Belt, Kuiper Belt, and Oort Cloud. Asteroids and meteorites that bombarded the Earth from space during the formation of the planets and Solar System.

Cosmic dust grains carried on asteroids and meteorites that struck the Earth during the first moments of the birth of the Solar System could have carried complex organic compounds that contributed to the birth and evolution of life on Earth.
Cosmic dust grains carried on asteroids and meteorites that struck the Earth during the first moments of the birth of the Solar System could have carried complex organic compounds that contributed to the birth and evolution of life on Earth.

NASA space scientists were able to reproduce a “Crucible of the Building Blocks of Life” using an aluminum plate cooled to minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 Celsius) as the cold surface of an interstellar dust grain carried by an asteroid or meteorite heading to Earth 4.5 billion years ago. The experiments were conducted in a vacuum chamber used to replicate conditions in space to which they added gasses containing water, carbon dioxide, and the simple organic compound pyridine. Bombarding the cold surface with high energy protons from a particle accelerator to simulate cosmic radiation and other radiation found in space produced more complex organic compounds like vitamin B3.  

Data collected by the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission during the months and years ahead could shine more light on this subject. Rosetta's lander, Philae, is currently sitting on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko awaiting its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015. Presently, the surface of the comet is warming and gases we can test to validate the results of these experiments are expected to be released as it nears Sol. 
Data collected by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission during the months and years ahead could shine more light on this subject. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, is currently sitting on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko awaiting its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015. Presently, the surface of the comet is warming and gasses we can test to validate the results of these experiments are expected to be released as it nears Sol.

To learn more about the European Space Agency and its work with the Rosetta mission go here.

To learn more about NASA’s space mission and the search for life beyond Earth visit here.

Learn more about the Goddard Space Flight Center here.

Learn more about plans to visit Jupiter’s moon Europa to have a look for the ingredients that make life possible.

Read about the search for the missing link in black hole evolution.

Learn about the planets space scientists are finding orbiting four star systems.

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