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Ariel – a window to the origin of life on early earth?

Abstract

Is there life beyond Earth? An ideal research program would first ascertain how life on Earth began and then use this as a blueprint for its existence elsewhere. But the origin of life on Earth is still not understood, what then could be the way forward? Upcoming observations of terrestrial exoplanets provide a unique opportunity for answering this fundamental question through the study of other planetary systems. If we are able to see how physical and chemical environments similar to the early Earth evolve we open a window into our own Hadean eon, despite all information from this time being long lost from our planet’s geological record. A careful investigation of the chemistry expected on young exoplanets is therefore necessary, and the preparation of reference materials for spectroscopic observations is of paramount importance. In particular, the deduction of chemical markers identifying specific processes and features in exoplanetary environments, ideally “uniquely”. For instance, prebiotic feedstock molecules, in the form of aerosols and vapours, could be observed in transmission spectra in the near future whilst their surface deposits could be observed from reflectance spectra. The same detection methods also promise to identify particular intermediates of chemical and physical processes known to be prebiotically plausible. Is Ariel truly able to open a window to the past and answer questions concerning the origin of life on our planet and the universe? In this paper, we discuss aspects of prebiotic chemistry that will help in formulating future observational and data interpretation strategies for the Ariel mission. This paper is intended to open a discussion and motivate future detailed laboratory studies of prebiotic processes on young exoplanets and their chemical signatures.

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Notes

  1. Translated by D.P. Stern

  2. Noted by Günther Hasinger during Ariel Science, Mission & Community 2020 Conference.

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Acknowledgements

Martin Ferus acknowledges grant no. 19-03314S of the Czech Science Foundation. Laboratory of high resolution spectroscopy acknowledges ERDF/ESF “Centre of Advanced Applied Sciences” (No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000778). Antonín Knížek acknowledges support from grant GAUK 16742. A. Kereszturi acknowledges the support of GINOP-2.3.2-15-2016-00003 from NKFIH. V. Čuba and B. Drtinová acknowledge support from MPO TRIO no. FV30139. Lukáš Nejdl acknowledges the support of Grant Agency of Mendel University in Brno IGA MENDELU 2019_TP_009. Vladislav Chernov and Petr Kubelík acknowledge support from the joint RFBR projects (research projects no 20-10591 J and no. 19-52-26006, correspondingly). Special thanks go to Antonín Knížek for comprehensive consolidation of the paper and to Alan Heays for his careful language review of the text.

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Ferus, M., Adam, V., Cassone, G. et al. Ariel – a window to the origin of life on early earth?. Exp Astron 53, 679–728 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10686-020-09681-w

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10686-020-09681-w

Keywords

  • Prebiotic chemistry
  • Origin of life
  • Prebiotic molecule detection
  • Exoplanet