NASA has issued a new grant that bolsters research into the cosmic building blocks of life by funding observations of young solar systems throughout the universe, including our own.

The four-year grant sets aside $630,000 to expand operations by the New York Center for Astrobiology located at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York.

Scientists at the center study the chemical, geologic and physical conditions on Earth that allowed life to form. They use this research to steer the hunt for alien life elsewhere, be it on Mars or in another solar system altogether.

By studying new planets that have just recently formed, scientists hope to learn more about the different types of environments prevalent in the galaxy, as well determine the odds that places beyond Earth are habitable.

"We are looking for the conditions of life, rather than life itself," said RPI physicist Douglas Whittet, director of the center.

Prior to planets

The researchers are also investigating how planets, including Earth, gather the materials they need for life to take hold.

Chemicals critical to the foundation of life first formed from molecules cooked through stellar processes, Whittet said. These chemicals may have formed in clouds of gas surrounding stars and then piggybacked their way to Earth on meteorites that crashed into our planet..

"A lot of organic molecules present on Earth may have been delivered shortly after it was formed," Whittet said. "We aim to find out what was happening in the solar system 4.5 billion years ago when [this happened]. When and how was this matter synthesized and how common is it?"

Molecular clouds and disks surround stars and evolve into planets as matter accumulates. Observing radiation from these regions reveals information about their chemical composition, and possibly, their contribution to life's building blocks. So far, there are promising indications that complex chemistry began in pre-planetary disks.

Chemistry and planets form together

While early universe compounds of hydrogen and helium make up the gas bundles around stars, organic molecules like alcohols and hydrocarbons are more common in the disks, Whittet said.

However, some of the most important building blocks for life so far appear to be scarce.

"The most common material we've found is carbon dioxide, which is not very useful in making life," Whittet said. "It would be a lot more interesting if the carbon were going into hydrocarbons, which are a stepping point to much more complicated molecules."

Currently, scientists are analyzing data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared telescope orbiting the sun, collected from 2003 to 2009.

"There's a huge archive of data that's being analyzed, and the grant will afford us access to more of that material," Whittet said.