Bacteria Made Of Star Stuff

One of the best at explaining science was Carl Sagan. One recurring theme in Sagan’s works can be seen in the quote below:

And we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars organized collections of 10 billion-billion-billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps, throughout the cosmos.

Or consider the video below: Continue reading

Monkeys in Space!

I don’t know how I missed this, but yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the launching of Baker (a squirrel monkey) and Abel (a rhesus monkey) into space. They were the first primates to survive a trip into space (although Abel died a few days after the trip due to an infected electrode. National Geographic has some pictures to commemorate the event.

In other primate related news, I have managed to injure my right hand and wrist (more about that later) so blogging may be light for the next couple of days.

Update 1: Turns out I have a sprain of the right wrist, makes typing a bit difficult…

Dust With Life Like Qualities?

Science Daily has an interesting article up concerning the lifelike qualities of some inorganics caught in a plasma field:

Continue reading

Snakes on a (Galactic) Plane

Via the JPL comes this great picture of snakes on a galactic plane

The Future of Space Science: Depressing

According to New Scientist the fate of NASA’s science budget is pretty gloomy:

NASA’s proposed cuts to its science budget will have a devastating impact on astronomy and Earth-science research for years to come, an expert panel told a US congressional committee on Thursday.
Panellists urged NASA to restore funding for research and analysis grants, and low-cost missions – even if that comes at the expense of more ambitious missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

Continue reading

More Organic Chemicals Found in Space

Scientists associated with NASA’s Spitzer Telescope have discovered polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons:

“NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has shown complex organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in every nook and cranny of our galaxy. While this is important to astronomers, it has been of little interest to astrobiologists, scientists who search for life beyond Earth. Normal PAHs aren’t really important to biology,” Hudgins said. “However, our work shows the lion’s share of the PAHs in space also carry nitrogen in their structures. That changes everything.”

This is important because:

“Much of the chemistry of life, including DNA, requires organic molecules that contain nitrogen,” said team member Louis Allamandola, an astrochemist at Ames. “Chlorophyll, the substance that enables photosynthesis in plants, is a good example of this class of compounds, called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles, or PANHs. Ironically, PANHs are formed in abundance around dying stars. So even in death, the seeds of life are sewn,” Allamandola said.

Looking back over the years it is totally amazing to me how many different types of organic chemicals have been found in outer space. Once upon a time it used to be thought that outer space was barren of organic chemicals and origins of life research focused on chemicals believed to be present on early earth. It seems the picture is changing…

Comets and Organic Molecules

Deep Impact collision ejected the stuff of life


Millions of kilograms of fine dust particles and water and a “surprisingly high” amount of organic molecules sprayed into space when NASA crashed its Deep Impact spacecraft into Comet 9P/Tempel 1 on 4 July 2005, reveal a trio of new studies.

The observations bolster theories that comets may have seeded Earth with the raw materials for life and suggest they may be sponge-like – rather than hardened – at their cores.

Observers estimate the impact released about 5 million kilograms of water from beneath the comet’s surface and between two and five times as much dust. There was so much dust, in fact, that mission members have not been able to see the impact crater with the high-resolution camera on the mission’s flyby spacecraft, about 500 km away.

But here is the interesting part:

The team estimates the impact blasted away a crater about 100 metres wide and up to 30 m deep. Crucially, organic molecules were among the material ejected. Neither the full range of molecules nor their abundances have been determined yet, but researchers say they have found a surprisingly high amount of methyl cyanide, a molecule seen in large quantities in another comet.

This supports theories that comets may have brought water and the building blocks of life to Earth, and the team hopes to eventually “identify all the species comets brought in abundance to early Earth”, says A’Hearn.

Interesting!

Cool Science: Part One

Saturn’s Rings Have Own Atmosphere which came as a surprise to me – but I’m not an astronomer or astrophysicist or anything. Apparently, due to some interesting properties concerning the way water (i.e. H20) behaves in the region of Saturn an atmosphere is generated:

Water molecules are first driven off the ring particles by solar ultraviolet light. They are then split into hydrogen and atomic oxygen, by photodissocation. The hydrogen gas is lost to space, the atomic oxygen and any remaining water are frozen back into the ring material due to the low temperatures, and this leaves behind a concentration of oxygen molecules on the ring surfaces and, maybe through ion-neutral chemistry, molecular oxygen is formed, but this is not yet well understood.

Cool!

Earth’s Early Atmosphere and the Search for Life on other Planets

Model Gives Clearer Idea Of How Oxygen Came To Dominate Earth’s Atmosphere

Researchers interested in how earth’s atmosphere came to be dominated by oxygen have come up with an interesting model to explain why there was a lag between the origin of photosynthesis and the domination of earth’s atmosphere by oxygen.

There were several processes at work. First, gasses emitted from volcanoes combined with the oxygen and acted as an oxygen sink. Second, oxidation of iron from space bombardment acted as a second sink. Researcers found that varying the estimates of iron content in the earth’s crust could change the time frame by up to a billion years in one direction or the other.

Here is how it works:

Earth’s oxygen supply originated with cyanobacteria, tiny water-dwelling organisms that survive by photosynthesis. In that process, the bacteria convert carbon dioxide and water into organic carbon and free oxygen. But Claire noted that on the early Earth, free oxygen would quickly combine with an abundant element, hydrogen or carbon for instance, to form other compounds, and so free oxygen did not build up in the atmosphere very readily. Methane, a combination of carbon and hydrogen, became a dominant atmospheric gas.

With a sun much fainter and cooler than today, methane buildup warmed the planet to the point that life could survive. But methane was so abundant that it filled the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where such compounds are very rare today. There, ultraviolet exposure caused the methane to decompose and its freed hydrogen escaped into space, Claire said.

The loss of hydrogen atoms to space allowed increasingly greater amounts of free oxygen to oxidize the crust. Over time, that slowly diminished the amount of hydrogen released from the crust by the combination of pressure and temperature that formed the rocks in the crust.

“About 2.4 billion years ago, the long-term geologic sources of oxygen outweighed the sinks in a somewhat permanent fashion,” Claire said. “Escaping to space is the only permanent escape that we envision for the hydrogen, and that drove the planet to a higher oxygen level.”

The most intersting part of the article is the last sentence:

“There is interest in this work not just to know how an oxygen atmosphere came about on Earth but to look for oxygen signatures for other Earth-like planets,” Claire said.

Note that the one thing missing in this search for life on other planets is Intelligent Design

Organic Molecules in the Early Universe

Nasa’s infrared telescope (the Spitzer Telescope) has found traces of organic molocules that are believed to be about 10 billion years old:

Using Spitzer, scientists have detected organic molecules in galaxies when our universe was one-fourth of its current age of about 14 billion years. These large molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are comprised of carbon and hydrogen. The molecules are considered to be among the building blocks of life.

These complex molecules are very common on Earth. They form any time carbon-based materials are not burned completely. They can be found in sooty exhaust from cars and airplanes, and in charcoal broiled hamburgers and burnt toast.

The molecules, pervasive in galaxies like our own Milky Way, play a significant role in star and planet formation. Spitzer is the first telescope to see these molecules so far back in time.

The interesting part about this, to me, is that these molecules play a role in star and planet formation. Not being an astronomer I can only wonder at how many other organic molecules play a role in these processes.

You can also go here for more info.

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