When and where life originated on Earth, and if, or where, life exists elsewhere in the cosmos are some of the biggest unanswered scientific questions of our time. Simple organic materials in meteorites and comets are often cited as potential sources for the initial organics which seeded prebiotic evolution on Earth. However, upon impact the original compounds present are not always delivered unchanged. Collisions and impacts between objects at all scales, from meteorites to planets, can produce novel molecules relevant to prebiotic chemistry - including complex amino acids and nucleobases.
Previous studies have focused on either characterizing the final products or observing the kinetics of their formation on longer timescales. These studies have shown that in the initial moments of a collision any organics present will fragment into ions and radicals which then recombine to form more complex products. These impact processes generate extreme conditions of pressures a million times atmospheric pressure and temperatures as hot as the surface of the Sun.
In order to study how these complex organic fragments form and rules governing breakdown of the starting molecules and build-up of complex materials, we use SLAC’s X-ray Free Electron Laser to visualize chemical bonds breaking and forming in femtoseconds. In this presentation, I will show how the process of shock compression may hold the key to revealing the origin of life via complex chemical dynamics taking place at ultrafast timescales at extraordinary high-pressures and -temperatures.
Speaker: Arianna Gleason-Holbrook, SLAC
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