Organic molecules found round distant star

Clouds of cyanide could increase hope of finding life elsewhere in the Galaxy

ALMA detected the organic molecules in the outer edges of the system, in a region similar to our Kuiper Belt. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

ALMA detected the organic molecules in the outer edges of the system, in a region similar to our Kuiper Belt. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

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Complex organic molecules have been found in the protoplanetary disc surrounding a young star by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

The chemicals are a key to the development of primordial life.

The observations by ALMA show that the protoplanetary disc, a ring of debris and dust that will form planets and moons, surrounding the star MWC 480 contains enough methyl cyanide to fill all of the Earth’s oceans.

This means that the composition of its system is much like that of our own.

“Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned the Sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds,” noted Karin Öberg, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge.

“We now have even better evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the Universe, in regions that could form Solar Systems not unlike our own.”

Methyl cyanide and the simpler hydrogen cyanide, which was also detected, are poisonous to most advanced forms of life here on Earth, but they were important to our early development.

They contain a nitrogen and carbon atom bonded together, essential in creating amino acids that go on to form proteins.

Astronomers have known for some time that interstellar clouds manufacture complex organic molecules.

What was unclear whether these chemicals would then survive around hot young stars, like MWC 480.

The observations have proved that not only can they survive but the molecules are found in much greater abundances than around interstellar clouds, meaning that they are being produced in the protoplanetary disc.

“From the study of exoplanets, we know the Solar System isn’t unique in its number of planets or abundance of water,” concluded Öberg.

“Now we know we’re not unique in organic chemistry.

Once more, we have learnt that we’re not special.

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From a life in the Universe point of view, this is great news.”