Cosmic Dust Cooks Up Life’s Favorite Beverage

Scanning electron microscope photo of an interplanetary dust particle collected by a high-altitude plane. It measures about 8 microns across or a little less than twice the size of a human red blood cell. Scientists recently discovered that dust particles can act as tiny factories to built water molecules. Credit: Donald Brownlee and Elmar Jessberger

I’ve never been much of a cook though I do make a pretty tasty chili. Now it turns out I’ve been bested by little more than sunlight and dust. A research team, led by John Bradley of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, used a transmission electron microscope to discover tiny pockets of water on the surface of cosmic dust particles. This specialized instrument focuses a beam of electrons instead of light to to resolve details right down to the atomic level.

Chunky clouds of cosmic dust in the dark nebula LDN 1622 are silhouetted against a background of glowing gas. Credit: Hunter Wilson

Dribs and drabs of debris blown into space by both aging stars and supernovae salt and pepper the universe with cosmic dust. They’re extremely teeny with sizes ranging from just a few molecules to millionths of an inch and mostly made of silicates, which are minerals made of silicon and oxygen. Quartz is one of the most familiar silicates on Earth.

When the Apollo astronauts returned samples of lunar rocks, scientists noticed that bombardment by hydrogen and helium ions in the gusty solar wind had chipped away and damaged the rocks’ outer surfaces. That has fascinating consequences when it comes to dust from vaporized comets, asteroid collisions and debris left from the birth of the solar system.

Water forms on interplanetary dust particles due to space-weathering from the solar wind. Hydrogen ions in the solar wind react with oxygen atoms in the dust to form tiny water-filled vesicles (blue). Credit: John Bradley, UH SOEST/ LLNL

When hydrogen in the million mile an hour solar wind smacks interplanetary dust it loosens up the oxygen atoms in the silicates. Now free to move and react with its surrounding elements, oxygen combines with hydrogen to potentially make water.

Those molecular bits of water were too difficult to detect until Bradley used the state-of-the-art microscope to spot them inside tiny bubbles on the surface of the particles. Their findings, published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, make my cooking skills seem primitive by comparison.

Material left over from the formation of the sun built the planets, comets and asteroids. Dusty debris still remains in the solar system. Scientists believe it may have brought critical carbon and water to Earth in its youth. Credit: NASA

Previous work has shown that the element carbon, so critical to life as we know it, is also found in space dust. It’s not hard to imagine a rain of water and carbon-saturated dust wafting its way down through Earth’s atmosphere during the early days of the solar system seeding the planet with essential ingredients for the formation of life.

Picture yourself standing there – appropriately dressed in a spacesuit as Earth was uninhabitable at that time – on the first solid rock as fireballs and their tiny, dusty cousins prepped the planet for the greatest unintentional experiment ever conducted in the universe. Life.

12 Responses

  1. Richard Keen

    Bob, that’s a teaser of a headline – at first I thought lakes of beer had been found on Titan. But water’s OK, too, especially for us “bags of mostly water”.
    Speaking of cooking skills, this story reminds me of the synthesis of complex hydrocarbons way out there some time in the future (around 2300 AD, according to the prologue):
    Scene: On Altair 4, the ship’s cook aboard United Planets Cruiser C57D takes Robby the Robot out behind a hill to ask a favor.
    Robby the Robot: Can I be of service, sir?
    Cookie: Never mind the “sir,” but I’m a stranger in this so-called planet,
    and I was just wondering if you could tell me where I could get hold of some of the real stuff.
    Robby the Robot: “Real stuff”?
    Cookie: Just for cooking purposes. I take a big pride in my duties.
    Robby the Robot: Pardon me, sir. “Stuff”?
    Cookie: Just about one jolt left. Oh, genuine Ancient Rocket bourbon. See ?
    (Robby takes the bottle and pours the last shot into his analyzer)
    Cookie: Hey! You low-living contraption! I oughta take a can opener to you!
    Robby the Robot: Quiet, please. I am analyzing.
    Yes, relatively simple alcohol molecules with traces of fusel oil.
    Would 60 gallons be sufficient?
    … From “Forbidden Planet” (1956).

    1. astrobob

      Wonderful to hear that passage again. I’d forgotten about it completely. Forbidden Planet was one of my favorite movies – loved the theremin music and the fear of something you couldn’t see.

      1. Richard Keen

        Bob, I was kind of figuring you were a big fan of “Forbidden Planet”. That and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” were my all-time favorites until “2001”, which ran away with my affections. “Casablanca” isn’t half bad, either.

        1. astrobob

          “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is also a favorite. In more current sci-fi I enjoyed some aspects of Prometheus – the feel and technology of the alien space ship – but otherwise the movie was a disappointment. It drives me nuts when space mission crews are composed of knuckleheads and misfits.

          1. Richard Keen

            Yes, incompetent space crews are annoying. Except in the case of “Dark Star”, with the hippie surf bums from Malibu on interstellar duty, and their skill (?) is part of the story!
            Pity no one ever thought of making movies of some Arthur Clarke or Isaac Asimov classics, like Childhood’s End, Nine Billion Names of God, and Nightfall.

          2. astrobob

            I’m sure movie directors do this to create conflict and make the movie more interesting. Unfortunately it can ruin and distract from the story.

    2. Giorgio Rizzarelli

      Great news the water in cosmic dust. In these years we’re discovering water in any places in Solar System and space.

      I remember distinctly that scene from Forbidden Planet, great movie, and also the soundtrack made with synthesizers of the time – it was innovative, today it’s old technology, but still sounds scary because it was really something different, a kind of composition of sounds which sounded quite extraterrestrial.

      Yes there are few good sci-fi movies in these years. Apart serials like the new Star Trek Movies, Oblivion was one of the few recent sci-fi movies where I saw an interesting story.

        1. Giorgio Rizzarelli

          “Moon” (2009) is also interesting. A kind of independent movie with the merit of keeping momentum though featuring basically a single actor. I now learn that the director is son of David Bowie.

          These movies have interesting plot-twisting (so I particularly suggest don’t read the plot before) and make references to classics.

  2. Robbie The Robot, what an actor ! And one that successfully made the transition to the TV screen with its world acclaimed part in “Lost In Space” (1965-1968) where the only knucklehead was Dr Zachary Smith (Jonatan Harris).
    Can’t wait for the time when “they” decide to adapt Arthur C Clarke’s “2061” so that the loose strings of “2001” and “2061” can finally be tied.
    Oh, the Pain; The Pain of it all !

    1. Giorgio Rizzarelli

      Yes BC. I loved 2010 as well, though not cinematographically at the level of Kubrick’s masterpiece, it has a very good story. You’re right, time could be good for 2061 and 3001. As from Wikipedia, after the release of the 2061 novel, Tom Hanks expressed interest in producing and interpreting it alongside returning actors from 2001, but the plans didn’t went further. Today with all the talented filmmakers out there and grown with old classics there’s certainly someone who can do something in a style that can approximate 2001, especially given the possibilities of today’s CGI.

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