Article by Michael Burton, Director of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover recently discovered organic molecules in 3 billion year old Martian rocks. This material may have been delivered by meteorites and comets to the young planet. Deep space is full of organic matter. Organic matter contains carbon, an element considered essential to life.
There is considerable uncertainty surrounding the abundance of carbon in the cosmos. In the space between stars, only half the carbon that we think should be there can be accounted for as simple molecules, free atoms and ions. The remainder is chemically bound in two main forms, grease-like (aliphatic) and mothball-like (aromatic).
A new study by UNSW Sydney in collaboration with researchers from Ege University (Turkey) and Armagh Observatory and Planetarium (UK), has determined how much interstellar carbon there is in its greasy, aliphatic form. By creating material with the same properties as interstellar dust in the laboratory, the researchers were able to combine magnetic resonance and infrared spectroscopy to determine how strongly the material absorbed light with a certain infrared wavelength.
“We first set out to measure the amount of carbon in grains in interstellar space using the UKIRT infrared telescope in ...