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Chemical evolution in space — A source of prebiotic molecules

Advances in Space Research
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/0273-1177(83)90037-6
  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics


Abstract In Laboratory Astrophysics at Leiden University a laboratory analog for following the chemical evolution of interstellar dust in space shows that the dust contains the bulk of organic material in the universe. We follow the photoprocessing of low temperature (10 K) mixtures of ices subjected to vacuum ultraviolet radiation in simulation of interstellar conditions. The most important, but necessary, difference is in the time scales for photo-processing. One hour in the laboratory is equivalent to one thousand years in low density regions of space and as much as, or greater than, ten thousand to one million years in the depths of dense molecular clouds. The ultimate product of photoprocessing of grain material in the laboratory is a complex nonvolatile residue which is yellow in color and soluble in water and methanol. The molecular weight is greater than the mid-hundreds. The infrared absorption spectra indicate the presence of carboxylic acid and amino groups resembling those of other molecules of presumably prebiological significance produced by more classical methods. One of our residues, when subjected to high resolution mass spectroscopy gave a mass of 82 corresponding to C 4H 6H 2 after release of CO 2 and trace ammounts of urea suggesting amino pyroline rings. The deposit of prebiotic dust molecules occurred as many as 5 times in the first 500–700 million years on a primitive Earth by accretion during the passage of the solar system through a dense interstellar cloud. The deposition rate during each passage is estimated to be between 10 9 and 10 10 g per year during the million or so years of each passage; i.e. a total deposition of 10 9 – 10 10 metric tons of complex organic material per passage.

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