- The Molecules that Fell to Earth

The Molecules that Fell to Earth


On 6 February, Nasa will launch a small, unremarkable spacecraft that could help to answer one of the big questions - how life began on Earth. Could we really be about to learn where we all came from, asks Jon Evans

Stardust may be a rather fanciful name, but for Nasa's forthcoming spacecraft (right), due to be launched next month, it is surprisingly apt; for part of Stardust's seven-year mission is to collect samples of the interstellar dust that fills the cosmos and that is believed to be, at least partly, made up of the remnants of stars. Supporters of the mission hope that this stardust could help to shed light on the secret of the origins of life.

Scott Sandford, astrophysicist and co-leader of the astrochemistry laboratory at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California, US, is one of the scientists who may prise open this secret. He has been heavily involved in the Stardust mission from the start, helping to develop and test the sample return equipment. He will also be one of a number of researchers analysing the collected samples once they are returned to Earth.

Their analysis should allow scientists to discover just what kind of complex molecules exist in space. This could confirm and put into context previous laboratory findings that complex organic molecules, even lipid membranes, could have formed in space, and might have 'seeded' the early Earth. The implications of the mission are huge and, as Sandford says, 'the pay-off is potentially enormous because even if we only find three such grains, it will be all three of the ones we have - all that science has to study'.

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