News from Space: “Life” Molecules Detected in Space!

SagitariusB2The secret to the creation to life in our universe appears to be seeding – the proper elements in the right mix in the right places to form the right kind of molecules. Only then can these molecules evolve chemically into more and more complex structures, thus following a general pathway toward biology. The pathway for life as we know it starts with carbon, but one which is specific organized and structured.

Recently, a team of astronomers  at the ALMA Observatory reported the discovery of this very element while probing distant galaxies. What they found was not just interstellar carbon, but a form of carbon with a branched structure. The discovery was made in the gaseous-star forming region known as Sagittarius B2 – a giant molecular cloud of gas and dust that is located about 390 light years from the center of the Milky Way.

radio-wave-dishesSimple carbon chains aren’t particularly unusual in the cosmos, but complex carbon is a different matter. It is what the researchers, based at Cornell University and the Max Planck Institute, describe as finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack. The actual molecule in question is isopropyl cyanide, and it was discerned thanks to the miracle known as radio astronomy.

Within clouds of interstellar dust and gas, elements find themselves shielded from the harsh radiation of open space and are, thus, free to form into more complex arrangements. These molecules don’t just sit there, but instead move around within their cloud-homes and bump into each other. The result of this activity are radio signals which can be detected light-years away – in this case, by radio telescopes here on Earth.

MaxPlanckIns_radiowavepulseEvery molecule has a different radio signal, so it’s possible to pick apart the contents of interstellar junk by examining a cloud’s frequency spectra. NASA, via the Ames Research Center, even maintains a radio-emission frequency database to aid in the tracking of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a form of molecule thought to contain much of the universe’s carbon stockpiles.

The branching carbon structure of isopropyle cyanide is of particular interest because it’s thought that this arrangement is a step on the way to the production of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and hence organic life. The discovery gives weight to the increasingly popular notion that life, or at least many of the key steps leading toward life, actually occurs off-planet.

alien-worldLife on Earth may have been well on its way while the planet was still just space dust waiting to come together into our rock-home. What’s more, the molecules discovered by the ALMA team probably aren’t alone.  As the authors, led by astronomer Arnaud Belloche, wrote:

[Isopropyle cyanide’s] detection therefore bodes well for the presence in the [interstellar medium] (ISM) of amino acids, for which such side-chain structure is a key characteristic… This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the [interstellar medium].

The discovery follows a general progression in recent years adding more and more life-ingredients to our picture of the ISM. A 2011 study revealed that complex organic matter should be created in large volumes from stars, while a 2012 report study found that conditions within the ISM are uniquely suited to the creation of increasingly complex molecules, “step[s] along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively.”

sugar-in-space-molecules_58724_990x742Also in 2012, astronomers working for ALMA found basic sugar molecules hanging out in the gas cloud around IRAS 16293-2422 – a young star located some 400 light-years from Earth. The particular form, glycoaldehyde, is thought to be a key component of the reaction behind the creation of DNA. Indeed, more and more, the universe is looking less and less like a harsh environment in which life must struggle to emerge, to a life factory.


News from Mars: Updates on Panspermia Theory

PanspermiaFor centuries now, scientists have been toying with the idea that the origins of life may owe a great deal to space borne debris. And with ongoing research in the past few years, the link between Earth and Mars have become increasingly convincing. And a new bit of research out of the University of Hawaii has provided yet another piece of the puzzle by suggesting solar wind plays a major role.

Solar wind – the stream of charged particles consisting mostly of naked protons called H+ ions – permeate our Solar System because they are periodically ejected from the sun. The University paper shows that in an airless environment, typical space rocks will react with impacting protons to create tiny vesicles of water, thus allowing water and organic molecules to travel through space in tandem.

asteroid_earthInterestingly, the paper comes soon after NASA released evidence that Mars once sported a fair amount of water in the past, and that this water is sometimes found in unexpected places. The finding that water can be generated within dry space rocks, coupled with the fact that space rocks are known to deliver organic compounds to the surface of the Earth, is yet another indication that Earth and Mars might be linked.

Other recent papers have suggested that life’s important molecules arrived intact from Mars – a primitive version of RNA is one major proposed molecular stow-away – but these researchers claim only that “complex organic molecules” came from somewhere else in space. Complex organic compounds and liquid water, in conjunction, could theoretically provide the potential for non-living material to come alive.

Comet1One important aspect of this idea is that it focuses on small particles of material, rather than comets. Prior research has looked to such large bodies as the carriers of life and the drivers of the chemistry that created it, due to their energetic impacts. It’s been suggested that the earliest living things were cobbled together from high-energy molecules that couldn’t exist unless their synthesis was driven by massive astronomical impacts.

This more passive, dust-based explanation seems to fit well with the known history of the Earth, which predicts there was a high level of dust flux in the period before life began to flourish. In addition, the theory could help explain how in the predominantly shadowy areas of the Moon – another airless silicate body – unexpectedly high levels of water have been detected.

resolve_roverNASA has plans to launch RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction) in 2018 to collect and analyze ice samples and use them to look back into just that sort of astronomical history. Large quantities of water are thought to have arrived on the Moon via impacting comets, but this research suggests that at least some of it could have been created on the Moon itself.

All of this is of extreme importance to discovering how life began on Earth, mainly because scientists are still unsure of what makes the process complete. For instance, evolutionary theory can adequately explain how a bacterium becomes a protist that becomes an animal, but it cannot explain how a pile of non-living molecules ever became a living cell.

panspermia2Evidence seems to be mounting that, whether it was seeded with dust or fused into existence by huge asteroid impacts, life on Earth needed a kickstart in its earliest days. Interestingly, Earth’s atmosphere and the abundance of messy lifeforms on its surface could mean that Earth is the single worst place to search for such evidence.

The Moon or Mars, by contrast, are perfect environments for preserving evidence of the past given their dry and airless nature. And with ongoing research into both planets and our scientific knowledge of them expanding apace, whatever role they may have played in kickstarting life on Earth may finally be learned. This could come in handy if ever we need to do a little kickstarting of our own…


News From Space: The Weird Atmospheres of Titan and Io

alien-worldStudying the known universe is always interesting, mainly because you never know what you’re going to find. And just when you think you’ve got something figured out – like a moon in orbit around one of the Solar Systems more distant planet’s – you learn that it can still find ways to surprise you. And interestingly enough, a few surprises have occurred back to back in recent weeks which are making scientists rethink their assumptions about these moons.

The first came from Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon and the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. All told, the surface has over 400 volcanic regions, roughly 100 mountains – some of which are taller than Mount Everest – and extensive lava flows and floodplains of liquid rock that pass between them. All of this has lead to the formation of Io’s atmosphere, which is basically a thin layer of toxic fumes.

Io_mapGiven its distance from Earth, it has been difficult to get a good reading on what the atmosphere is made up of. However, scientists believe that it is primarily composed of sulfur dioxide (SO2), with smaller concentrations of sulfur monoxide (SO), sodium chloride (NaCl), and atomic sulfur and oxygen. Various models predict other molecules as well, but which have not been observed yet.

However, recently a team of astronomers from institutions across the US, France, and Sweden, set out to better constrain Io’s atmosphere. Back in September they detected the second-most abundant isotope of sulfur (34-S) and tentatively detected potassium chloride (KCl). Expected, but undetected, were molecules like potassium chloride (KCl), silicone monoxide (SiO), disulfur monoxide (S2O), and other isotopes of sulfur.

Io_surfaceBut more impressive was the team’s tentative of potassium chloride (KCl), which is believed to be part of the plasma torus that Io projects around Jupiter. For some time now, astronomers and scientists have been postulating that Io’s volcanic eruptions produce this ring of plasma, which includes molecular potassium. By detecting this, the international team effectively found the “missing link” between Io and this feature of Saturn.

Another find was the team’s detection of the sulfur 34-S, an isotope which had previously never been observed.  Sulfur 32-S had been detected before, but the ratio between the 34-S and 32-S was twice that of what scientists believed was possible in the Solar System. A fraction this high has only been reported once before in a distant quasar – which was in fact an early galaxy consisting of an intensely luminous core powered by a huge black hole.

These observations were made using the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) antenna – a radio telescope located in northern Chile. This dish is a prototype antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). And while Io is certainly an extreme example, it will likely help terrestrial scientists characterize volcanism in general – providing a better understanding of it here on Earth as well as outside the Solar System.

TitanThe second big discovery was announced just yesterday, and comes from NASA’s Cassini space probe. In its latest find investigating Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini made the first off-world detection of the molecule known as propelyne. This simple organic compound is a byproduct of oil refining and fossil fuel extraction, and is one of the most important starting molecules in the production of plastics.

The molecules were detected while Cassini used its infrared spectrometer to stare into the hydrocarbon haze that is Titan’s atmosphere. The discovery wasn’t too surprising, as Titan is full of many different types of hydrocarbons including methane and propane. But spotting propylene has thus far eluded scientists. What’s more, this is the first time that the molecule has been spotted anywhere outside of Earth.

titan_cassiniThese finding highlight the alien chemistry of Saturn’s giant moon. Titan has moisture and an atmosphere, much like our own, except that its rains are made of hydrocarbons and its seas composed of ethane. Scientists have long wanted to explore this world with a boat-like rover, but given the current budget environment, that’s a distant prospect. Still, sales of propylene on Earth are estimated at $90 billion annually.

While no one is going to be mounting a collection mission to Titan anytime soon, it does offer some possibilities for future missions. These include colonization, where atmospheric propylene could be used to compose settlements made of plastic. And when it comes to terraforming, knowing the exact chemical makeup of the atmosphere will go a long way towards finding a way to make it breathable and warm.

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video about Cassini’s latest discovery. With the government shutdown in effect, NASA’s resources remain offline. So we should consider ourselves lucky that the news broke before today and hope like hell they get things up and running again soon!


News From Space: We Come From Mars!

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356Men are from Mars, women are… also from Mars? That is the controversial theory that was proposed yesterday at the annual Goldschmidt Conference of geochemists being held in Florence, Italy. The proposal was made by Professor Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida and is the result of new evidence uncovered by his research team.

The theory that life on Earth originated on Mars has been argued before, but has remained contentious amongst the scientific community. However, Benner claims that new evidence supports the conclusion that the Red Planet really is our ancestral home by demonstrating that the elements for life here could only form on Mars, and came here via a Martian meteorite.

Asteroid-Impacts-MarsAccording to the theory, rocks violently flung up from the Red Planet’s surface during mammoth collisions with asteroids or comets then traveled millions of kilometers across interplanetary space to Earth. Once they reached Earth’s atmosphere. they melted, heated and exploded violently before the remnants crashed into the solid or liquid surface.

All that would be needed is for a few of those space born rocks to contain microbes from Mars surface. These building blocks of life would have to survive the journey through space and the impact on Earth to make this happen. But research into Exogenesis – the possibility that life was transplanted on Earth by meteorites – has already shown that this is possible.

curiosity_sol-177-1What’s more, NASA’s Curiosity Rover was expressly created to search for the the environmental conditions that would support life. Less than half a year into its mission it accomplished just that, locating proof of the existence of water and a habitable zone. Between it and the Opportunity Rover, the search to determine if life still exists – in the form of organic molecules – continues and is expected to yield results very soon.

But of course, Benner was quick to point out that there is a difference between habitability (i.e. where can life live) and origins (where might life have originated). The presence organic molecules alone is not enough when it comes to the mystery of life’s creation, and when it comes to making the great leap between having the necessarily elements and the existence of living organisms, scientists remain hung up on two paradoxes.

These are known as the tar paradox and the water paradox, respectively. The former paradox addresses how life as we know it comes down to the presence of organic molecules, which are produced by the chemistry of carbon and its compounds. However, the presence of these compounds does not ensure the creation of life, and laboratory experiments to combine and heat them has only ever produced tar.

mars_lifeAs he puts it, the origin of life involves “deserts” and oxidized forms of the elements Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo) – namely borate and molybdate. Essentially, these elements are the difference between the formation of tar and RNA, the very building block of life:

Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn into tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting. Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidized form of molybdenum was there too.

The second paradox relates to water, which is believed to be intrinsic for life to flourish, but can be also hazardous to its formation. According to modern research, RNA forms prebiotically, requiring mineral species like borate to capture organic elements before they devolve into tar and molybdate to arrange the material to give it ribose – organic sugars, also intrinsic to life.

Mars-snow-header-640x353This can only occur in deserts, he claims, because water is detrimental to RNA and inhibits the formation of borates and molybdates. And from a geological standpoint, there was simply too much water covering the early Earth’s surface to allow for this creation process to take place:

[W]ater is corrosive to RNA, which scientists believe was the first genetic molecule to appear. Although there was water on Mars, it covered much smaller areas than on early Earth. Various geologists will not let us have these [borates and molybdates] on early Earth, but they will let us have them on Mars. So IF you believe what the geologists are telling you about the structure of early Earth, AND you think that you need our chemistry to get RNA, AND IF you think that life began with RNA, THEN you place life’s origins on Mars,

All of this has served to throw the previously-held theory – that life came to Earth through water, minerals and organics being transported by comets – into disarray. Based on this new theory, comets are a bad candidate for organic life since they lack the hot, dry conditions for borate and molybdate formation.

Living-Mars.2If the new theory is to be believed, Mars boasted the proper conditions to create the elements for life, while Earth possessed the water to help it flourish. If such a partnership is needed for the creation of organic life, then scientists will need to reevaluate the likelihood of finding it elsewhere in the universe. Between the existence of water and hot dry environments, life would seem to require more specialized conditions than previously though.

But of course, the debate on whether Earthlings are really Martians will continue as scientific research progresses and definitive proof is discovered and accepted by the majority of the scientific community. In the meantime, Curiosity is expected to rendezvous with Mount Sharp sometime next spring or summer, where it will determine if organic molecules and elements like Boron and Molybdenum exist there.

And on Nov. 18th, NASA will launch its next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter – which will begin studying the upper Martian atmosphere for the first time, determining its previous composition, and where all the water went and when was it lost. So we can expect plenty more news to come to us from our neighboring Red Planet. Wait and see!


Ice and Organics Found on Another Planet!

mercury_messengerYes, the announcement from the Curiosity team yesterday that no organics have been found on Mars (yet) certainly came as a big disappointment. However, people may be interested to hear that organic molecules were discovered on a different planet in our Solar System, along with water and ice. Would you believe it, the planet is Mercury? Yes, the world famous for lakes of molten metal and extreme heat may actually boast the building blocks of life.

This information is the latest to come from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which is now orbiting the closest planet to our Sun. It confirms what was postulated 20 years ago, after images were taken of the polar region and detected radar-bright materials which were beleived to be water and ice. And where water and ice occur, organic molecules are often sure to follow. Though Mercury boasts the hottest environment of any planet in the Solar System, the area in question lies within a permanent shadowed series of craters on the northern pole.

Scientists today said that Mercury could hold between 100 billion to 1 trillion tons of water ice at both poles, and the ice could be up to 20 meters deep in places. Additionally, intriguing dark material which covers the ice could hold other volatiles such as organics. Unfortunately, all of this water comes in the form of ice, as surface temperatures in the poles are too cold to allow for a thaw. In addition, the total lack of atmosphere on Mercury would mean that any liquid would evaporate and be sucked into space very quickly.

At a briefing which was held yesterday, Sean Solomon – MESSENGER Principal Investigator – has this to say about the news: “These findings reveal a very important chapter of the story of how water ice has been delivered to the inner planets by comets and water rich asteroids over time.” In short, it is believed that these ice deposits and organic molecules were delivered to the planet through a series of meteor impacts, and which have survived thanks to the existence of Mercury’s permanently shadowed polar regions.

Granted, no settlers are ever likely to be making a home on Mercury – not without some serious technological innovations! – but the discovery is a very interesting find and does help scientists to understand how life may have begun here on Earth. What’s more, this news may help Curiosity and other science teams to determine where and how organic molecules and ice could be found on Mars. The challenges there are similar to those on Mars, since she too is an inner planet that has virtually no atmosphere and a great deal of surface radiation, not to mention that she too would have been the recipient of water ice and organics through meteoric impacts.

So c’mon Mars! Show us what you got. You don’t want to be outdone by your Hermian cousin do ya?

“Earthshaking” News From Mars!

Curiosity-RocknestCancel the champagne! Turns out what we have here is a tentative conclusion made by some overzealous scientists. According to an update made earlier today, scientists working for NASA indicated that no organic molecules were found in the sample of Martian soil taken by Curiosity nine days ago. The news first appeared on NASA’s Twitter feed as follows:

“Everybody, chill. After careful analysis, there are no Martian organics in recent samples.”

This was followed shortly thereafter with:

“Why the wait? We’re moving at the speed of science. My team needed time to analyze the data.”

Uh, yeah. Because that’s what we were concerned with; the wait, not the getting of our hopes up! But last but not least, there some words of reassurance:

“Turn that frown upside down: We’re fewer than four months into a multi-year mission. We’ve only just begun!”

To be fair, this announcement doesn’t rule out the possibility of organic molecules on the Martian surface. It’s just that no organic molecules have been found yet. Unfortunately, having thought that they had detected some traces in their samples, Grotzinger conveyed the team’s excitement about the possibility of a discovery and triggered a bit of a media frenzy. Understandable, but frankly, I have a bit of a bone to pick with Grotzinger himself.

Dude, you had to know we’d all get excited and start hanging on your every update with baited breath. But in the end, we were like a bunch children on Christmas morning, desperately waiting to rip into our presents, only to find that Santa had stuck us with an IOU! Or worse, a note saying: “There are plenty more Christmas’s coming! Be happy!” Turn my frown upside down, Grotzinger? You owe me restitution!

Okay, now that I’m ranted out, I sincerely hope the mission meets with the results they are looking for soon. Granted, Curiosity still has many more years before her mission is complete, but I don’t think I can stand this kind of suspense! And frankly, I’d like to hear about some definitive proof that terraforming is possible on a planetary scale. Get on it, NASA! You got a planet to prep for colonization!