April 13, 2024

Why study this? What can this teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

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Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

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Credit: NASA/FUSE/Lynette Cook

Universe Today had fantastic discussions with researchers about the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, solar physics, comets, planetary atmospheres, and planetary geophysics, and how these diverse scientific fields can help researchers and the public understand better. the search for life beyond Earth.

Here, we will investigate the unique field of cosmochemistry and how it provides researchers with knowledge relating to our solar system and beyond, including the benefits and challenges, the discovery of life beyond Earth, and suggestive paths for future students who wish to continue studying cosmochemistry. . But what is cosmochemistry and why is it so important to study it?

“Cosmochemistry is the study of space things, the real materials that make up planets, stars, satellites, comets and asteroids,” said Dr. Ryan Ogliore, associate professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis. “This material can take all forms of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

Cosmochemistry is different from astronomy, which is primarily concerned with the study of light that interacts with these things. There are two main benefits to studying real astromaterials: 1) the materials record conditions at the time and place where they formed, allowing us to look into the deep past; and 2) laboratory measurements of materials are extraordinarily accurate and sensitive, and continue to improve as technology improves.”

In a nutshell, the field of cosmochemistry, also known as chemical cosmology, perfectly sums up Carl Sagan’s famous quote: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of stellar matter. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” To understand cosmochemistry is to understand how Earth got here, how we got here, and possibly how life got to wherever we (hopefully) will find it, someday.

Like all scientific fields, cosmochemistry incorporates a multitude of methods and strategies aimed at answering some of the universe’s most difficult questions, specifically concerning how the countless stellar and planetary objects throughout the universe came to be. These methods and strategies primarily include laboratory analyzes of meteorites and other physical samples brought back from space, including the Moon, asteroids, and comets. But what are some of the benefits and challenges of studying cosmochemistry?

“One of the main benefits of cosmochemistry is the ability to reproduce measurements,” Dr. Ogliore told Universe Today. “I can measure something in my laboratory, and someone else can measure the same object, or a very similar object, in another laboratory to confirm my measurements. Only after repeated measurements, by different laboratories and techniques, will a given statement be universally accepted by the community This is difficult to do in astronomy, and also difficult using remote sensing measurements on spacecraft that study other bodies in the solar system.”

In addition to the manned Apollo missions to the Moon, all other samples from space were returned via robotic spacecraft. While this may seem like an easy process from an outside perspective, collecting samples from space and returning them to Earth is a very daunting and time-consuming series of countless tests, procedures, precise calculations, and hundreds to thousands of scientists and engineers ensuring every few Details are covered to ensure the complete success of the mission, often to collect just a few grams of material.

This enormous effort is tasked with not only ensuring successful sample collection, but also ensuring successful storage of the samples to prevent contamination during the journey home and then retrieving the samples as soon as possible. land in a capsule on Earth, where they will be properly unpacked. cataloged and stored for laboratory analysis.

To demonstrate the difficulty in conducting a sample return mission, only four nations have successfully used robotic explorers to collect samples from another planetary body and return them to Earth: the former Soviet Union, the United States, Japan and China. The former Soviet Union successfully returned lunar samples to Earth during the 1970s; the United States returned samples of a comet, an asteroid and even solar particles; Japan has successfully returned samples from two asteroids; and most recently, China managed to return 61.1 ounces from the Moon, which is the current record for robotic sample collection missions. But even with the difficulty of conducting a successful sample return mission, what can cosmochemistry teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

“Cosmochemistry can tell us about the delivery of the ingredients necessary for life to planets or moons via asteroids or comets,” Dr. Ogliore told Universe Today. “Because we have material from asteroids and comets in the laboratory, we can tell whether primitive prebiotic organic compounds could have been delivered by these bodies. Of course, this does not mean that life on Earth (or elsewhere) began this way, just that is one way. Detecting life on another world would be one of the biggest discoveries in the history of science. So of course we would like to be absolutely sure! This requires repeated measurements by different labs using different techniques, which requires a sample on Earth . I think the only way we can know for sure if there is life on Europa, Enceladus or Mars is to bring a sample from those places to Earth.”



It turns out that NASA is actively working on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, for which Dr. Ogliore is a member of the MSR Measurement Definition Team. The goal of the MSR will be to travel to the Red Planet to collect and return samples of Martian regolith to Earth for the first time in history. The first step of this mission is currently being carried out by NASA’s Perseverance rover in Jezero Crater, as it slowly collects samples and drops them in tubes across the Martian surface for future retrieval by MSR.

For Europa, although there have been several discussions about a sample return mission, including a 2002 study that discusses an ocean sample return mission from Europa and a 2015 study that discusses a potential plume sample return mission, There is currently no definitive sample return mission from Europa. works, possibly due to the enormous distance. Despite this, and although not a life-search mission, Dr. Ogliore was tasked with leading a robotic mission to Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io to explore its multitude of volcanoes. For Enceladus, the Life Investigation for Enceladus (LIFE) mission has received a number of mission proposals to return samples of Enceladus’ plumes, although they have not yet been accepted. But what is the most interesting aspect of cosmochemistry that Dr. Ogliore has studied during his career?

“In my opinion, the most important measurement in the history of cosmochemistry was the measurements of the Sun’s oxygen isotopic composition,” Dr. Ogliore told Universe Today. “To do this, we needed to return solar wind samples to Earth, which we did with NASA’s Genesis mission. However, the sample return capsule crashed on Earth. But did that stop the cosmochemists?! Of course not! Kevin McKeegan and colleagues at UCLA built a specialized, huge and complicated instrument to study these samples.Despite the accident, McKeegan and colleagues analyzed the oxygen in the solar wind and found that it was 6% lighter than the oxygen found on Earth, and matched the composition of solar wind. oldest known objects in the solar system: millimeter-sized calcium-aluminum inclusions (CAIs) found in meteorites.”

Ogliore goes on to tell Universe Today about how this outcome was predicted by Bob Clayton of the University of Chicago, as well as crediting his own postdoc, Lionel Vacher, for leading a research project that built on the Genesis results, noting, ” This was a really fun project because it was technically very challenging and the results put the solar system in its astrophysical context.”

Like the myriad scientific disciplines that Universe Today has examined during this series, cosmochemistry succeeds because of its multidisciplinary nature that contributes to the goal of answering some of the universe’s most difficult questions. Dr. Ogliore emphasizes that analyzing laboratory samples involves a multitude of scientific knowledge to understand what researchers are observing within each sample and the processes responsible for creating them. Additionally, this also includes the sample return missions mentioned above and hundreds to thousands of scientists and engineers participating in each mission. So, what advice can Dr. Ogliore offer future students who want to pursue cosmochemistry?

“Biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics, electronics – you need it all!” Ogliore told Universe Today. “If you like constantly learning new things, then planetary science is for you. It’s good to get a very broad education. This will serve you well in a number of careers, but it’s especially true of planetary science and cosmochemistry. I understand working with people who study volcanoes and mathematicians who work on chaotic motion. How cool is that?!”

Considering all of this, cosmochemistry is an extremely challenging and rewarding field of study to try to answer some of the most difficult and long-standing questions about the processes responsible for the existence of celestial bodies in the solar system and beyond, including stars, planets, moons. , meteorites and comets, as well as how life emerged on our little blue world. As noted, cosmochemistry perfectly summarizes Carl Sagan’s famous quote: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of stellar matter. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” It is through cosmochemistry and the analysis of meteorites and other returned samples that allows researchers to slowly move forward to answer what constitutes life and where we can find it.

“Meteorites are the most spectacular record of nature known to humanity,” Dr. Ogliore told Universe Today. “We have rocks from Mars, the Moon, volcanic worlds, the asteroid Vesta and dozens of other worlds. Iron meteorites are the cores of dismembered planets. These rocks record processes that occurred four and a half billion years ago and fell to Earth in a blazing fireball traveling at kilometers per second. You can follow several blogs that track fireballs and even calculate areas where meteorites may have fallen. If you have the opportunity, try to find one of these recently fallen meteorites. The chances They’re big, but it’s worth trying. I haven’t found a meteorite yet, but it’s a life goal of mine.

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