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UMSL Researcher Studies Distant Solar-Mass Stars for Origins of Earth's Molecules

While many elements and compounds likely were delivered to Earth during the making of our solar system; today, carbonaceous meteorites bring us needed molecules such as amino acids, carboxylic acids, phosphates and sugar derivatives. But from where do these life-relevant molecules originate? Can our planet’s molecules be found in distant preplanetary disks that represent the beginnings of a new solar system?

Because the solar-mass stars of interest are so far away, answering these questions is difficult; but Dr. Erika Gibb, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is up to the challenge. Gibb received a $68,000 subcontract from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for the project “Evolution of Preplanetary Matter in Analogs of the Early Solar System: From Spitzer to SOFIA and JWST.” The investigators are near the end of their second year of work on this four-year subcontract.

This funding is part of a $630,000 grant received by Dr. Douglas Whittet, professor of physics, applied physics and astronomy at RPI from NASA; additional subcontracts under this grant went to Dr. Eric Herbst, faculty emeritus in physics at Ohio State University, and Dr. Yvonne Pendleton, astrophysicist and senior executive at NASA Ames Research Center.

To research these distant stars, Gibb’s team must take advantage of the unprecedented power and precision available at the W.M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano. The twin Keck telescopes represent the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes, each offering 10-meter primary mirrors, standing eight stories tall, weighing 300 tons, and operating with nanometer precision.

Approximately once each year, Gibb travels to Mauna Kea with a group of students to take images of distant preplanetary disks using the Keck II telescope. The telescope imaging system that Gibb’s team uses is a near-infrared spectrometer, which spreads light out in the near-infrared region. The investigators study the pattern of emissions and absorptions, data which take more than a year to analyze. In the analysis, Gibb is looking for the types, numbers and temperatures of molecules out there, trying to determine how the molecules are evolving over time. She hopes to find organic molecules like those that were present when Earth’s solar system formed.

Throughout this process, Gibb is collaborating with her colleagues to integrate their research: Whittet and Pendleton are investigating interstellar ices, and Herbst is looking at modeling chemicals in space.  With their combined efforts, they hope to determine how preplanetary matter evolves into a solar system, how life began on Earth and whether life may begin in the distant regions of our galaxy. ♦

Featured Grant:
Evolution of Preplanetary Matter in Analogs of the Early Solar System: From Spitzer to SOFIA and JWST

Erika Gibb
Erika Gibb, associate professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy

Dr. Erika Gibb, associate professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, received an undergraduate degree in astronomy and physics from Northern Arizona University. While there, she spent three years working at Lowell Observatory observing the sun. She earned a PhD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2001 studying ice in interstellar space. She then had a research position at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center studying comets and the University of Notre Dame to study molecules in preplanetary disks. All her research has been aimed at looking at prebiotic organic molecules and water in space with the goal of understanding how such material forms and may be delivered to planetary bodies. She joined the faculty at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2005 in the Department of Physics and Astronomy where she combines her love of research with her love of teaching by involving undergraduate students in cutting edge research.

Award Total: $67,944 (subcontract part of a $627,562 total award)
Funding Source:   Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (original funding from NASA)