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.

Calculating Orbits of Asteroids in the Main Asteroid Belt

The International Astronomical Search Campaign

The International Astronomical Search Campaign is looking for astronomy leaders of tomorrow
The International Astronomical Search Campaign is looking for astronomy leaders of tomorrow

Space news (astronomy leaders of tomorrow: The International Astronomical Search Campaign)

An asteroid is a piece of solid rock with an irregular body ranging in size between 500 meters and hundreds of kilometers. The majority of these bodies can be found in the main asteroid belt, a region of space between Mars and Jupiter. Pieces of rocky material left over from the formation of the solar system over 4.6 billion years ago, NASA scientists estimate there are as many as 40,000 asteroids contained within this main asteroid belt, with a combined mass less than the Moon. Confirming the identity and calculating the orbit of the asteroids contained within this belt is part of the space mission of NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

The IASC plans and campaigns are expected to drive the human journey to the beginning of space and time forward
The IASC plans and campaigns are expected to drive the human journey to the beginning of space and time forward

The International Astronomical Search Campaign (IASC) is an educational outreach program created to allow high school and college students around the country to participate in identifying and calculating the orbit of every rocky body within the main asteroid belt. Originally created and developed by Patrick Miller of Hardin-Simmons University in the state of Texas, this program has helped tens of thousands of students in 250 schools and 25 countries on five continents learn more about astronomy.

Students can help determine the identify and orbit of asteroids in the main asteroid belt
Students can help determine the identity and orbit of asteroids in the main asteroid belt

Students participating in the program download images taken of an asteroid within the main asteroid belt in the last few hours by telescopes (24 and 32 inches) located in the Astronomical Institute in Illinois. Students must determine the identity and calculate the three-dimensional orbit of an asteroid using Astrometrica, a software package users need to download directly from the IASC website, within a three-day window.

The telescopes take three images of an asteroid at six-minute intervals,  which means it would have moved around five pixels in relation to distant background stars in each image. Astrometrica highlights objects in each image fitting these criteria by putting a red circle around them.

In order to determine an object is an asteroid, students must sort through objects that have moved in the images, and ones that are static. They do this by taking a look at the fit of the point spread function, the signal-to-noise ratio, and any change in the size of an object in the images. If an object has moved in a relatively straight line, stayed about the same size, has a signal-to-noise ratio greater than five, and is approximately round in shape, then it’s probably an asteroid.

Join the human journey to the beginning of space and time today!

A typical International Astronomical Search Campaign lasts about 45 days, during which new asteroids are often discovered, identified, and their orbits determined. This is your chance to become an astronomy leader of tomorrow, by participating in the International Astronomical Search Campaign, and WISE’s mission to identify and calculate the orbit of every rocky body in the main asteroid belt.

You can find more information and news on the space mission of NASA’s WISE spacecraft here.

You can find more on the current campaigns of the International Astronomical Search Campaign here.

Schools desiring to take part in the International Astronomical Search Campaign contact the IASC Director, Dr. J. Patrick Miller by email at:
iascsearch@hsutx.edu.

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