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Faraday Discuss. 2006;133:277-88; discussion 347-74, 449-52.

Carbon molecules in space: from astrochemistry to astrobiology.

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  • 1Leiden Institute of Chemistry, Astrobiology Laboratory, 2300 RA, The Netherlands.


How complex carbonaceous molecules in space are, what their abundance is and on what timescales they form are crucial questions within cosmochemistry. Despite the large heterogeneity of galactic and interstellar regions the organic chemistry in the universe seems to follow common pathways. The largest fraction of carbon in the universe is incorporated into aromatic molecules (gaseous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon as well as solid macromolecular aromatic structures). Macromolecular carbon constitutes more than half of the interstellar carbon, approximately 80% of the carbon in meteorites, and is likely to be present in comets. Molecules of high astrobiological relevance such as N-heterocycles, amino acids and pre-sugars have all been identified in trace quantities (ppb) in extracts of carbonaceous meteorites. Their presence in inter- and circumstellar regions is either unknown or contentious. In any event such fragile species are easily destroyed by UV radiation, shocks and thermal processing and are unlikely to survive incorporation into Solar System material without some degradation. The more refractory material, in particular macromolecular carbon may retain an interstellar heritage more faithfully. We present laboratory measurements on the photostability of organic compounds and discuss their survival in regions with elevated UV radiation. We also show recent observations of diffuse interstellar bands indicating the presence of fullerenes. We investigate the link between the carbon chemistry in interstellar space and in the Solar System by analyzing the carbonaceous fraction of meteorites and by reviewing stable isotopic data. It also seems evident that both volatile and refractory material from carbonaceous meteoritic has been substantially altered owing to thermal and aqueous processing within the Solar System.

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