Behind locked doors, in a lab built like a bomb shelter, Perry Gerakines makes something ordinary yet truly alien: ice. This isn't the ice of snowflakes or ice cubes. No, this ice needs such intense cold and low pressure to form that the right conditions rarely, if ever, occur naturally on Earth. And when Gerakines makes the ice, he must keep the layer so microscopically thin it is dwarfed by a grain of pollen.
These ultrathin layers turn out to be perfect for recreating some of the key chemistry that takes place in space. In these tiny test tubes, Gerakines and his colleagues in the Cosmic Ice Lab at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., can reproduce reactions in ice from almost any time and place in the history of the solar system, including some that might help explain the origin of life.
"This is not the chemistry people remember from high school," says Reggie Hudson, who heads the Cosmic Ice Lab. "This is chemistry in the extreme: bitter cold, harsh radiation and nearly non-existent pressure. And it's usually taking place in gases or solids, because generally speaking, there aren't liquids in interstellar space."
The Cosmic Ice Lab is one of a few laboratories worldwide where researchers have been studying the ultracool chemistry of cosmic ice. With its powerful particle accelerator, the Goddard lab has the special ability to mimic almost any kind of solar or cosmic radiation to drive these reactions. And that lets them dig deep to study the chemistry of ice below the surface of planets and moons as well as ice in space.
Recipe for disorder
In a vacuum chamber about the size of a lunchbox, Gerakines recreates a little patch of deep space, in all its extremes. He pumps out air until the pressure inside drops to a level a billion times lower than normal for Earth, then chills the chamber to minus 433 degrees Fahrenheit (15 kelvins). To get ice, all that remains is to open a valve and let in
|Contact: Liz Zubritsky|
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center