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‘Sweet Spot’ for Formation of Organic Molecules in Galaxy

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Scientists within the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have compiled years of research to help locate areas in outer space that have extreme potential for complex organic molecule formation. The scientists searched for methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. Their results have implications for determining the origins of molecules that spark life in the cosmos.

The findings will be published in the Nov. 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal in a paper titled “Observational constraints on methanol production in interstellar and preplanetary ices.” The work is collaboration between researchers at Rensselaer, NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, and Ohio State University.

“Methanol formation is the major chemical pathway to complex organic molecules in interstellar space,” said the lead researcher of the study and director of the NASA-funded center, Douglas Whittet of Rensselaer. If scientists can identify regions where conditions are right for rich methanol production, they will be better able to understand where and how the complex organic molecules needed to create life are formed. In other words, follow the methanol and you may be able to follow the chemistry that leads to life.

Full Story: http://news.rpi.edu/update.do?artcenterkey=2941

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NASA Study of Clays Suggests Watery Mars Underground

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

A new NASA study suggests if life ever existed on Mars, the longest lasting habitats were most likely below the Red Planet’s surface.

A new interpretation of years of mineral-mapping data, from more than 350 sites on Mars examined by European and NASA orbiters, suggests Martian environments with abundant liquid water on the surface existed only during short episodes. These episodes occurred toward the end of a period of hundreds of millions of years during which warm water interacted with subsurface rocks. This has implications about whether life existed on Mars and how the Martian atmosphere has changed.

“The types of clay minerals that formed in the shallow subsurface are all over Mars,” said John Mustard, professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Mustard is a co-author of the study in the journal Nature. “The types that formed on the surface are found at very limited locations and are quite rare.”

Full Story: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-337

Absorption Lines Could Illuminate 90-Year-Old Puzzle

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

The discovery of 13 diffuse interstellar bands with the longest wavelengths to date could someday solve a 90-year-old mystery.

Astronomers have identified the new bands using data collected by the Gemini North telescope of stars in the center of the Milky Way.

Nature reports on its website today findings that support recent ideas about the presence of large, possibly carbon-based organic molecules—“carriers”—hidden in interstellar dust clouds. The paper will also appear in the Nov. 10 print issue of the journal.

“These diffuse interstellar bands—or DIBs—have never been seen before,” says Donald Figer, director of the Center for Detectors at Rochester Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study. “Spectra of stars have absorption lines because gas and dust along the line of sight to the stars absorb some of the light.”

“The most recent ideas are that diffuse interstellar bands are relatively simple carbon bearing molecules, similar to amino acids,” he continues. “Maybe these are amino acid chains in space, which supports the theory that the seeds of life originated in space and rained down on planets.”

Full Story: http://www.rit.edu/news/story.php?id=48672

VLT Reveals Surprising Ingredients of Early Galaxies

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

An international team of astronomers has used the brief but brilliant light of a distant gamma-ray burst as a probe to study the make-up of very distant galaxies. Surprisingly the new observations, made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, have revealed two galaxies in the young Universe that are richer in the heavier chemical elements than the Sun. The two galaxies may be in the process of merging. Such events in the early Universe will drive the formation of many new stars and may be the trigger for gamma-ray bursts.

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest explosions in the Universe [1]. They are first spotted by orbiting observatories that detect the initial short burst of gamma rays. After their positions have been pinned down, they are then immediately studied using large ground-based telescopes that can detect the visible-light and infrared afterglows that the bursts emit over the succeeding hours and days. One such burst, called GRB 090323 [2], was first spotted by the NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Very soon afterwards it was picked up by the X-ray detector on NASA’s Swift satellite and with the GROND system at the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope in Chile (eso1049) and then studied in great detail using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) just one day after it exploded.

The VLT observations show that the brilliant light from the gamma-ray burst had passed through its own host galaxy and another galaxy nearby. These galaxies are being seen as they were about 12 billion years ago [3]. Such distant galaxies are very rarely caught in the glare of a gamma-ray burst.

Full Story: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1143/

Hinode’s First Light…and 5 More Years

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Credit: Hinode, JAXA/NASA

Credit: Hinode, JAXA/NASA

On October 28, 2006, the Hinode solar mission was at last ready. The spacecraft launched on September 22, but such missions require a handful of diagnostics before the instruments can be turned on and collect what is called “first light.”

Hopes were high. Hinode had the potential to provide some of the highest resolution images of the sun the world had ever seen — as well as help solve such mysteries as why the sun’s atmosphere is a thousand times hotter than its surface and how the magnetic fields roiling through the sun create dramatic explosions able to send energy to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

The X-ray telescope (XRT) began taking images on October 23, the Solar Optical Telescope (SOT) opened its front door on October 25, and the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) started collecting spectroscopic images on October 28.

The images were beautiful, the data good; first light science had been achieved.

Full Story: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hinode/news/five-years.html