Michigan Astronomer to Search in Space for Precursors of Life

Apr 30, 2009
The Orion Nebula is one of the places where astronomer Ted Bergin will search for organic molecules using the Herschel Space Observatory.

Many of the organic molecules that make up life on Earth have also been found in space. A University of Michigan astronomer will use the Herschel Space Observatory to study these chemical compounds in new detail in the warm clouds of gas and dust around young stars.

They hope to gain insights into how organic molecules form in space, and possibly, how life formed on Earth.

"The chemistry of space makes molecules that are the precursors of life. It's possible that the Earth didn't have to make these things on its own, but that they were provided from space," said Ted Bergin, an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy.

Bergin is a co-investigator on the Heterodyne Instrument for the Infrared aboard Herschel and a principal investigator on one of its key observing programs. Herschel, a mission with NASA participation, is scheduled to launch May 6. An orbiting telescope that will unlock new wavelengths on the , it will allow astronomers to observe at the far-infrared wavelengths where organic molecules and water emit their chemical signatures.

"We'll be studying the full extent of chemistry in space and we hope to learn what types of organics are out there as a function of their distance from a star," Bergin said. "And we want to understand the chemical machinery that led to the formation of these organics."

Meteorites flecked with amino acids, which make proteins, have fallen to Earth from space. In faraway galaxies and stellar nurseries, astronomers have detected complex organic sugar and hydrocarbon molecules that are key components in chlorophyll in plants and RNA. Bergin expects to detect tens if not hundreds of these kinds of compounds---some of which have never been found before outside the Earth.

He is also involved in a Herschel project to look for water molecules in space. Traces of water in warm clouds of gas and dust around young stars could hold clues to how water forms and behaves in space, and how this elixir of life came to be so abundant on Earth. Scientists believe water got to Earth in a similar way as .

"Most of the water in the solar system is not where we are, but further out in the solar system," Bergin said. "Most theories suggest that the Earth formed dry and impacts from asteroids or other objects provided the water here."

Provided by Herschel Observatory

Explore further: A star's early chemistry shapes life-friendly atmospheres

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Pre-life molecules present in comets

Jul 26, 2006

Evidence of atomic nitrogen in interstellar gas clouds suggests that pre-life molecules may be present in comets, a discovery that gives a clue about the early conditions that gave rise to life, according to researchers from ...

Life's Building Blocks Are Common In Space

Oct 11, 2005

A team of NASA exobiology researchers revealed today organic chemicals that play a crucial role in the chemistry of life are common in space. "Our work shows a class of compounds that is critical to biochemistry is ...

Clues to our birth may be written in space

Jan 22, 2005

Extraterrestrial molecules found in meteorites may hold the key to the origin of life on Earth, according to chemistry research at the University of Leeds. Dr Terence Kee and a team from Leeds and Bradford universities are ...

Ingredients for DNA and Protein Found Around Star

Dec 21, 2005

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered some of life's most basic ingredients in the dust swirling around a young star. The ingredients - gaseous precursors to DNA and protein - were detected in the star's ...

Researcher Presents Origin-Of-Life Theory for Young Earth

Aug 14, 2007

Some of the elements necessary to support life on Earth are widely known - oxygen, carbon and water, to name a few. Just as important in the existence of life as any other component is the presence of adenine, an essential ...

Recommended for you

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

5 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

A star's early chemistry shapes life-friendly atmospheres

Apr 23, 2014

Born in a disc of gas and rubble, planets eventually come together as larger and larger pieces of dust and rock stick together. They may be hundreds of light-years away from us, but astronomers can nevertheless ...

Image: X-raying the cosmos

Apr 22, 2014

When we gaze up at the night sky, we are only seeing part of the story. Unfortunately, some of the most powerful and energetic events in the Universe are invisible to our eyes – and to even the best optical ...

Mysteries of nearby planetary system's dynamics solved

Apr 22, 2014

Mysteries of one of the most fascinating nearby planetary systems now have been solved, report authors of a scientific paper to be published by the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in its ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Kazakh satellite to be launched into orbit

Kazakhstan's first-ever Earth observation satellite is to be fired into orbit next week from the European spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana, launch company Arianespace said.

Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth ...

Professional and amateur astronomers join forces

(Phys.org) —Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours ...

First-of-its-kind NASA space-weather project

A NASA scientist is launching a one-to-two-year pilot project this summer that takes advantage of U.S. high-voltage power transmission lines to measure a phenomenon that has caused widespread power outages ...

Cell resiliency surprises scientists

New research shows that cells are more resilient in taking care of their DNA than scientists originally thought. Even when missing critical components, cells can adapt and make copies of their DNA in an alternative ...