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60-Second Space

Pre-Life Chemistry Happens at Space Temperatures

UV light, which radiates from stars and galaxies, can induce rapid changes in icy hydrocarbon molecules cooled to 5 kelvins, as on a comet. John Matson reports

Icy objects such as comets may have helped start life on Earth by delivering water and carbon-based molecules to the young planet. Because putting something on ice doesn’t necessarily keep it from changing: a new study finds that even in frigid, deep space environments, simple hydrocarbon molecules can react to become more complex ones. The process even works when temperatures drop to near absolute zero.

But just what kind of organic molecules would exist on the icy bodies of a forming solar system? Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, investigated how organic molecules might evolve toward greater complexity even in the cold of interstellar space.

The scientists found that ultraviolet light, which radiates from stars and galaxies, can induce rapid changes in icy hydrocarbon molecules cooled to 5 kelvin—that’s a frosty minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The chemical reactions resulted in molecules of more complexity—which is the right direction to go if you want to eventually make amino acids and biological molecules. The study appears in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. [Murthy S. Gudipati1 and Rui Yang, In-Situ Probing of Radiation-Induced Processing of Organics in Astrophysical Ice Analogs—Novel Laser Desorption Laser Ionization Time-of-Flight Mass Spectroscopic Studies]

It just goes to show—if you really want to freeze something in place, you’d better encase it in carbonite.

—John Matson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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