A team of researchers, including two from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, will use the observatory's infrared capabilities to search for a collection of molecules in clouds of dust surrounding five young stars, a Rensselaer release reported Monday.
The search will take place aboard a modified Boeing 747 that contains the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, that is the largest airborne observatory in the world.
"We're interested in how the matter that you need to make planetary life came to be: Where did it come from and how was it formed?" Rensselaer astrobiologist and physics Professor Douglas Whittet said.
"And since it happened here in our solar system, is it likely to happen elsewhere as well?
"We can't go back in time to observe our solar system when it was born, but we can look at other regions that we believe are similar and use them as analogs for the early solar system."
Infrared observations of newly born stars by ground-based telescopes have shown the presence of organic molecules and water in the dusty remnants of the clouds from which they formed, remnants that are the raw materials from which new planets may coalesce, the researchers said.
The airborne observatory has the capability to gather more specific data, they said.
"We're trying to look at a part of the spectrum that doesn't get through the atmosphere very well," Whittet said, noting atmospheric moisture absorbs most of the infrared radiation astronomers try to detect.
The aerial observatory's 40,000-foot operating altitude puts it above most of that moisture, he said.