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Interstellar ice may hold the key to understanding life's origins
Figure 2. Reaction scheme for thermal and initiated reactions of carbon dioxide and ammonia in interstellar analog ices including mass-to-charge ratio (m/z) and ionization energy (IE).
Interstellar ice may hold the key to understanding life's origins
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Dec 01, 2023

Recent research, as detailed in a study published in ACS Central Science, presents a novel perspective on the origins of life's essential components, particularly amino acids. The study posits that carbamic acid, a simple amino acid, may have formed in the vicinity of stars or planets within interstellar ices. This groundbreaking hypothesis provides a new avenue for understanding how the building blocks of life might have originated in the universe, far predating life on Earth.

Traditionally, it was believed that amino acids, key constituents of life, emerged from the chemical reactions in the early Earth's "primordial soup." An alternative theory, however, proposes that these molecules were brought to Earth by meteorites, having formed in the dust and interstellar ices of outer space. These ices, comprising water and other gases, exist in the frigid environment of space.

The quest to pinpoint the formation and timeline of these molecules has led scientists, including Ralf Kaiser, Agnes Chang, and their team, to explore the potential chemical reactions in interstellar ices near newly forming stars and planets. Their approach involved creating model interstellar ices with ammonia and carbon dioxide, subsequently heated on a silver substrate.

Utilizing Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, the researchers observed the formation of carbamic acid and ammonium carbamate at extremely low temperatures of -348 degrees Fahrenheit and -389 degrees Fahrenheit (62 and 39 Kelvin, respectively). This discovery indicates that such molecules, precursors to more complex amino acids, could have formed during the earliest and coldest stages of star formation.

Interestingly, the study also found that at warmer temperatures, akin to those around a newly formed star, two carbamic acid molecules could combine, forming a stable gas. This revelation opens the possibility that these molecules could have been integrated into the raw materials of solar systems, including our own. It is hypothesized that they might have been delivered to early Earth by comets or meteorites, contributing to the emergence of life.

This research holds significant implications for future space exploration and study. It suggests that instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope could be trained to search for prebiotic molecules in distant, star-forming regions of the universe. By looking for evidence of these molecules, scientists can deepen their understanding of the origins of life, both on our planet and potentially elsewhere in the cosmos.

Research Report:Thermal Synthesis of Carbamic Acid and Its Dimer in Interstellar Ices: A Reservoir of Interstellar Amino Acids

Related Links
American Chemical Society
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