In principle, the ingredients for the recipe to make an “habitable” planet like our own Earth are simple: a relatively small rocky planet, at the right distance from the host star, with a not too thick atmosphere rich in volatiles and capable of developing complex organic molecules chemistry. In practice, as any good chef knows, cooking an elaborate dish requires a careful preparation of the ingredients and a very specific process. Searches for exoplanets have shown a large degree of diversity in the planetary systems, and as yet is unclear how common a System like our own is. Understanding the formation of planetary systems and the chemical processing of the volatiles that will form their atmospheres is key to understand the origins of the Solar System and how common the “habitable” planet outcome may be.

Key questions still to be addressed are: how solids overcome the “groth barriers” to become rocky cores, how the formation of giant planets and their interaction with the gas and solids in disks affect the planet formation process, and how chemically complex are the volatiles delivered on the pristine planetary atmospheres.

The SKA will allow us to study in detail the evolution of dust as it evolves into planetesimals and rocky planets and to detect heavy complex organic molecules that today are beyond the reach of our observing capabilities. The “Cradle of Life” is one of the key science goals of SKA. To properly harvest the SKA science, it is necessary to prepare the SKA Key Programmes with theoretical/modeling and complementary observational programmes; laboratory experiments and quantum chemical computations to understand the microphysics of the dust and molecular evolution processes are also an essential step. Our groups have invested since many years in these areas and have reached an international level of excellence, including the involvement in leading roles in the preparation of SKA1 Key Programmes. We are thus in the perfect position to build on our investments and, with the proper support, ensure that INAF and, more broadly, the Italian community will harvest this prime SKA science.

We propose to support the key studies of dust evolution, planet formation, the dynamical interaction between proto-planetary bodies and planet forming disks and the studies of the chemical evolution of volatiles, leading to pre-biotic chemical complexity, that we are carrying out in preparation for the SKA Key Programmes. An essential component of our proposed strategy is to support the analysis of extensive preparatory observational programmes that we have ongoing with the major international facilities and SKA precursors. Another critical point of our proposed program is to support the training and involvement in the SKA preparatory and SKA Key Programmes of a generation of young researchers that hopefully will become the major users of SKA in the coming decades. Finally, the present project has the ambitious aim to go beyond the traditional astronomy, taking profit of close collaborations with Universities, and featuring a brand new synergy (in the INAF framework) between astronomical observational and modeling efforts, laboratory experiments, and state-of-the-art quantum-chemical computations.

Skatch of a protoplanetary disk forming around a Sun-like star