Goddard Lab Works at Extreme Edge of Cosmic Ice
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.”