Using Aromatic Compounds and Related Molecular Species as a Tracer of Carbon in the Universe and Life in the Solar System

Grant #: NNX07AE16A
Senior Scientist: Alessandra Ricca

The purpose of this research is to investigate aromatic compounds and related molecular species, using the information gained as a tracer of carbon in the universe and of life in the solar system.  The ultimate goal of this project is to determine whether aromatic structures, which are prevalent in our own biochemistry, might indicate an exogenous origin of life.  Since tons of organic molecules come to Earth every day from space, and this mass may have been a million times greater on the prebiotic Earth, such molecules might have aided in making the Earth habitable, perhaps even jump-starting life.  By extension, such a delivery process may be generally applicable to habitability of the planets of other stellar systems, and thus is of fundamental interest to the SETI Institute.  This program focuses on measuring the far and mid-infrared (IR) spectra of aromatic compounds under astrophysically relevant conditions, constructing a database of the measured spectra for use in interpreting astronomical observations, modeling the aromatic emissions, and utilizing the knowledge gained in the development of instrument concepts for planetary landers and probes.   Since nitrogen-containing aromatics are so important to our biochemistry, particular emphasis is placed on these compounds.  However this program is not limited to solely experimental work.  In addition to the proposed work, we are actively pursuing related observational and theoretical projects through collaborations with other scientists at NASA, universities, and non-profits.