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Article

Organic Molecules: Is It Possible to Distinguish Aromatics from Aliphatics Collected by Space Missions in High-Speed Impacts?

Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, School of Physical Sciences, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NH, UK
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Received: 22 August 2019 / Accepted: 29 August 2019 / Published: 4 August 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Molecules to Microbes)
A prime site of astrobiological interest within the Solar System is the interior ocean of Enceladus. This ocean has already been shown to contain organic molecules, and is thought to have the conditions necessary for more complex organic biomolecules to emerge and potentially even life itself. This sub-surface ocean has been accessed by Cassini, an unmanned spacecraft that interacted with the water plumes ejected naturally from Enceladus. The encounter speed with these plumes and their contents, was between 5 and 15 km s−1. Encounters at such speeds allow analysis of vapourised material from submicron-sized particles within the plume, but sampling micron-sized particles remains an open question. The latter particles can impact metal targets exposed on the exterior of future spacecraft, producing impact craters lined with impactor residue, which can then be analysed. Although there is considerable literature on how mineral grains behave in such high-speed impacts, and also on the relationship between the crater residue and the original grain composition, far less is known regarding the behaviour of organic particles. Here we consider a deceptively simple yet fundamental scientific question: for impacts at speeds of around 5−6 kms−1 would the impactor residue alone be sufficient to enable us to recognise the signature conferred by organic particles? Furthermore, would it be possible to identify the organic molecules involved, or at least distinguish between aromatic and aliphatic chemical structures? For polystyrene (aromatic-rich) and polymethylmethacrylate (solely aliphatic) latex particles impinging at around 5 km s−1 onto metal targets, we find that sufficient residue is retained at the impact site to permit identification of a carbon-rich projectile, but not of the particular molecules involved, nor is it currently possible to discriminate between aromatic-rich and solely aliphatic particles. This suggests that an alternative analytical method to simple impacts on metal targets is required to enable successful collection of organic samples in a fly-by Enceladus mission, or, alternatively, a lower encounter speed is required. View Full-Text
Keywords: astrobiology; Enceladus; space-missions; organic; aromatic; aliphatic astrobiology; Enceladus; space-missions; organic; aromatic; aliphatic
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MDPI and ACS Style

Burchell, M.; Harriss, K. Organic Molecules: Is It Possible to Distinguish Aromatics from Aliphatics Collected by Space Missions in High-Speed Impacts? Sci 2020, 2, 56. https://doi.org/10.3390/sci2030056

AMA Style

Burchell M, Harriss K. Organic Molecules: Is It Possible to Distinguish Aromatics from Aliphatics Collected by Space Missions in High-Speed Impacts? Sci. 2020; 2(3):56. https://doi.org/10.3390/sci2030056

Chicago/Turabian Style

Burchell, Mark, and Kathryn Harriss. 2020. "Organic Molecules: Is It Possible to Distinguish Aromatics from Aliphatics Collected by Space Missions in High-Speed Impacts?" Sci 2, no. 3: 56. https://doi.org/10.3390/sci2030056

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