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Thursday, 7 December 2017

'Liquid' - in deep frozen interstellar ice.

The rings of Saturn, made of trillions of ciy particles loaded with organic matter - how far can chemical evolution get in such places? 

Life arose here on Earth... but how far did purely chemical evolution get towards life, on the planetoids and protoplanets of the early solar system? New research from Hokkaido University implies it might have been further than we thought. 

Meteorites dating from long before Earth have been found to contain the chemical components of proteins, cell walls, and even building blocks of DNA. Exactly how that happens is badly understood. We know these meteorites are fragments of ancient proto-worlds - worlds which were surprisingly planet like, with liquid water percolating through their rocks, planet like cores and volcanism, out gassing driving short lived atmospheres, and magnetic fields. They could have provided the right environments to process the more primitive chemistry in the Sun's protoplanetary disk.

But some meteorites contain relatively advanced pre-biotic chemistry despite showing no sign of ever having gotten above freezing. So where did it come from?

Now a surprising explanation has been discovered: Researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan have discovered that simple organic compounds, frozen in interstellar ice, start reacting with each other as if they are in a liquid, when exposed to ultraviolet light. The interstellar ice itself, despite being far below freezing, seems to behave like a super cold fluid - somehow. 

Above: Deep frozen, artificial, 'interstellar ice' bubbling like boiling water under UV light.

That's plenty of a mystery itself, but discovering that this kind of chemistry can take place in the ice grains floating in space (instead of a planetary environment) literally opens up a sky full of new possibilities: Across large parts of the universe worlds could be forming with half the chemical steps towards starting life already done.

Our skies might just have become a lot more crowded. For the original paper click here.

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