Tool will replicate chemistry of space
Scientists will be able to learn about the evolution of molecules
University of Hawaii-Manoa researchers will build an instrument to reproduce and study deep-space chemistry under a $1.2 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.
The cutting-edge scientific project will be led by chemistry professor Ralf Kaiser and include David Jewitt and Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy, UH Vice Chancellor for Research Gary Ostrander said in a news release.
He said they are "among the most knowledgeable scientists in this field of study in the entire world. We are excited about the discoveries that lie ahead as a result of this support from the Keck Foundation."
Kaiser said the goal is to study so-called Kuiper Belt objects, small planetary bodies orbiting the sun beyond the planet Neptune, to try to understand the solar system's chemical evolution.
These objects resemble natural "time capsules" at a frozen stage before life developed on Earth, he said. The researchers will compare molecules formed in experiments with the current composition of the objects, he said.
"This approach provides an exceptional potential to reconstruct the composition of icy solar system bodies at the time of their formation billions of years ago.
"The significance of this project is that our studies clarify the origin of biologically relevant molecules and help unravel the chemical evolution of the solar system," Kaiser added.
Other participants in the project are John Head of the Chemistry Department; Klaus Sattler of the Department of Physics & Astronomy; Shiv K. Sharma, Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology; and John Cooper at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Kaiser said the Keck Foundation's support "is vital to this research as it enables us to build an instrument to perform these experiments -- an instrument that will be home -- built right here at UH-Manoa and does not exist anywhere else in the world."
Ostrander said the Keck grant "speaks volumes about the excellence in research being conducted at UH-Manoa. Students can get great research training and conduct cutting-edge graduate work right here on campus."
Jewitt said, "Very few educational institutions have such a close coupling between astronomy with telescopes and astrochemistry in the laboratory.
"The W.M. Keck Foundation award will allow us to tackle new problems and address important questions as they are unveiled by the large telescopes on Mauna Kea."