Complex carbon-based molecules, including many that are important for life on Earth, could have formed in the early solar system. That's according to a paper by Fred Ciesla and Scott Sandford in this week's issue of the journal Science, based on their computational simulations.
The origin of these prebiotic molecules has been a long-standing puzzle. In order for simple stable molecules such as carbon dioxide and methanol to rearrange themselves into more complex configurations, two conditions are thought to be needed.
In order to break the simple configurations apart, ultraviolet light is needed, and in order for the fragments to then be rearranged into different configurations, a heat source is needed. Until recently it was thought that all of the organic material on Earth had originated in situ, helped by lightning
But writing in Science this week, Ciesla & Sandford report on computational simulations of the migration of material within such disks, taking into account effects such as the evolution of the disk and the turbulence within it.
They conclude that there would have been very significant mixing of material as the solar system was forming, and that much of the material would at some point, by random chance, have found itself elevated slightly out of the top or the bottom of the disk. Here, it would have had a clear line-of-sight to the Sun.
By comparing their simulations with laboratory experiments to determine the amount of ultraviolet irradiation needed to produce chemical changes, Ciesla & Sandford conclude that this would have been ample time to account for all of prebiotic molecules found in the solar system today.