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Searching Distant Stars for Complex Organic Molecules |

A team of astrobiology researchers — including two from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — will use a series of nighttime flights on an airborne observatory to search newly born stars for the presence of precursors to life.

The scientists, led by Douglas Whittet, director of the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer, will use the observatory’s infrared absorption spectroscopy capabilities to search for a suite of molecules in clouds of dust surrounding five young stars. Their work is part of the first season, or cycle, of research to be performed aboard the Statospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the largest airborne observatory in the world.

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, began a planned-20 year lifetime with its first cycle from November 2012 to December 2013.

"We’re interested in how the matter that you need to make planetary life came to be: Where did it come from and how was it formed? And since it happened here in our solar system, is it likely to happen elsewhere as well?" said Whittet, also a professor of physics. "We can’t go back in time to observe our solar system when it was born, but we can look at other regions that we believe are similar and use them as analogs for the early solar system."

The scientists will determine the chemical composition of distant regions through absorption spectrometry, a technique that takes advantage of the fact that different types of matter absorb different segments of the wavelength spectrum generated by a given source of energy — in this case, the newly born star. continue reading

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