NASA scientists study origin of life after simulating cosmic evolution


NASA scientists simulate the cosmic evolution in labs to study the origin of life from amino acids and amines.

NASA scientists have performed a new experiment that enables them to study the evolution of life. At the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, scientists wanted to explore how amino acids and amines may have formed by simulating a mini cosmic evolution under lab conditions. The scientists made ices that simulate those found in interstellar clouds and then blasted them with radiation. The leftover material was then exposed to water and heat to replicate the conditions they would have experienced inside asteroids.

Danna Qasim, a research scientist, along with her colleagues made ices out of molecules that space telescopes commonly find in interstellar cloud. The ice consists of water, methanol, CO2, and Ammonia. A Van de Graaff particle accelerator was used to zap the ices with high-energy protons to mimic the cosmic radiation the ices would have experienced in a molecular cloud. The radiation process broke apart simple molecules. Those molecules then recombined into complex amines and amino acids, such as ethylamine and glycine. The amino acids were then left in gooey residues.

NASA scientists study evolution of life

“The important take-away is that the building blocks of life have a strong link not only to processes in the asteroid, but also to those of the parent interstellar cloud,” said Danna Qasim, Qasim now is a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and lead author of a study published on January 9 in the journal ACS Earth and Space Chemistry.

“We expect that these residues from the interstellar cloud are transferred to the protoplanetary disk that creates a solar system, including asteroids,” Qasim added.

Next came the asteroid simulations from billions of years ago, called “aqueous alteration.” Later, they analyzed the effects these warm, watery conditions had on the molecules.

The scientists then found that the amines and amino acids created in laboratory interstellar ices, and their proportions, stayed constant. This was regardless of asteroid conditions. This means that amines and amino acids can stay intact while they migrate from an interstellar cloud to an asteroid.

Qasim and her team then wanted to investigate this discrepancy. So, they designed an experiment —  adding asteroid simulations to the ice experiment. Christopher Materese, a Goddard research scientist wondered whether asteroid conditions was that missing link between lab-made interstellar ice and meteorite compositions. “Laboratory experiments focused solely on ice irradiation are not fully capturing the reality of the chemistry experienced by these compounds,” Materese said. “So part of the goal of this work was to see if we can close that gap,” he added.

The research team has not yet closed the gap. The lab simulation results still didn’t match those in meteorites. There is a possibility of factoring in the contamination when meteorites fall through Earth’s atmosphere.

However, this could be solved once the asteroid Bennu samples, which are currently being ferried by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to Earth for a September 24, 2023, delivery, reach the labs.

 




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