Life May Have Been Created From Low-Energy Electron Reactions in Space

life space

Professor Chris Arumainayagam has recently published results suggesting that low-energy, electron-induced condensed phase reactions may have contributed to the interstellar synthesis of prebiotic molecules. These molecules were previously thought to form only through UV photons. His work coincides with the idea that we, as humans, come from stardust and is the first unambiguous detection of glycine in a comet as reported in May 2016.

The goal of his research was to understand the “chemistry of the heavens”, as he so poetically put it. He wanted to do so by recreating what happens in interstellar space when high-energy cosmic rays impact ices surrounding micron-size dust grains in dark dense molecular clouds. In such locations the pressure is around ten trillion times lower than that of atmospheric pressure. The interaction of high-energy cosmic rays with matter creates massive amounts of low-energy electrons.

Arumainayagam’s results demonstrate that low-energy electron and UV irradiation of methanol ices yield just about the same reaction products. His studies thus far have identified one possible electron-induced cosmic ice chemistry tracer, known as methoxymethanol. This tracer is a complex organic molecule that is not identified in UV laboratory photolysis studies of condensed methanol. Future astronomical identification of methoxymethanol within interstellar or circumstellar clouds may be able to provide even more evidence to the role of low-energy electrons in astrochemistry. His complete findings back up a very important need for astrochemical models to include the details of low-energy electron-induced reactions in addition to those driven by UV photons.

Jyoti Campbell, a Wellesley College Sophomore will give an oral presentation at the conference called “The Role of Low-Energy Electrons in Astrochemistry: A Tale of Two Molecules.” Campbell has been offered access to technologies and equipment that are rarely something undergraduates can go near.

Arumainaygam is currently working on upgrading his UHV chamber to explore the fundamental differences between chemical reactions initiated by photons and electrons. The study was published in Surface Science journal.