Who’s Out There—Good News For Life’s Chances In Space
It all started with a mystery. Where did the methoxy come from? CH3O was discovered in the Perseus Molecular cloud in space 600 light years from Earth, where temperatures are near absolute zero, too low to supply enough energy for hydroxl (OH) and methanol (CH3OH) to react and form methoxy.
The mystery isn’t confined to methoxy. There are other organics—like alcohols and sugars—found in space. Their formation –if it came from simpler chemical—may be similar to what Dwayne Heard’s team at the University of Leeds discovered about the methoxy reaction.
Hydroxy and methanol react to produce methoxy much faster at –210˚ Celsius. than at room temperature, due to quantum tunneling, which is a reaction between particles occurring without the expected requisite energy.
Why is the reaction fifty times more likely at low temperature? Because the slower movement of molecules at that temperature allows them to stick together when they collide. They bounce off when they are moving faster at higher temperatures. Low temperatures slows down the molecules, giving tunneling through the energy barrier a better chance—one in ten instead of one in ten million.
The more organic molecules out there, the more raw materials to fuel life. In Science News August 10, 2010 page 9, Killpenstein at Argonne expects others similar reactions due to quantum tunneling will be found.
Another take on how life could be encouraged by natural processes was reported in Science News October 19, 2013 page 16. About 3.8 billion years ago, Earth was heavily bombarded with icy debris containing mixtures of ammonium hydroxide, carbon dioxide and methanol. That’s why Zita Martins of Imperial College London shot steel projectiles, moving at 7.15 kilometers per second, at similar icy mixtures. She reported in Nature Geoscience September 15 that she found a resulting residue of glycine and alanine, two amino acids important to proteins in life