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Airborne Search for Molecular Clues to Extraterrestrial Life

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – SOFIA. Credit: NASA /Carla Thomas

Scientists are taking to the air to look for life elsewhere.

Astrobiologists will be surveying newly born stars for the presence of precursors to life – research that is anchored in use of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the largest airborne observatory in the world.

Aboard SOFIA, the scientists will search for molecules such as methane, ammonia, formaldehyde, methanol, and formic acid – early precursors of amino acids.

The new work is based on ground investigations that searched for indications of methanol, a key ingredient in the synthesis of organic molecules that could lead to life. The payoff was that a handful of newly formed stars were identified that are surrounded by clouds with a high concentration of methanol (about 30 percent).

Only SOFIA has the capability to gather the more specific data the researchers currently seek.

The scientists, led by Douglas Whittet, director of the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, will use the observatory’s infrared absorption spectroscopy capabilities to search for a suite of molecules in clouds of dust surrounding five young stars.

Unimpeded view

A partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, SOFIA consists of an extensively modified Boeing 747SP aircraft carrying a reflecting telescope with an effective diameter of 2.5 meters (100 inches). The airborne observatory, based at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in California.

Why fly high over the Earth to look at stars so far away?

“We’re trying to look at a part of the spectrum that doesn’t get through the atmosphere very well,” Whittet said in an RPI statement.

“Earth’s atmosphere, which contains a lot of moisture, absorbs most of the infrared radiation we want to detect. But SOFIA cruises at an altitude of about 40,000 feet, which is above almost all of the moisture, and allows us an unimpeded view of the stars,” Whittet explains.

The scientists were awarded 6.5 hours aboard SOFIA, time which may be used in one or several flights over the Pacific Ocean. Whittet said that following the series of nighttime flights the scientists will likely publish findings from their research within a year after collecting the data.

By Leonard David

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