Apr 26, 2019 | Updated: 10:06 AM EDT

With the Help of ALMA Astronomers Find Complex Organic Molecules in Infant Solar System

Apr 08, 2015 05:06 PM EDT


While researchers have long believed that the circumstances and the molecular structures involved in the creation of our Sun and of our Earth were unique, it appears that far off in space there may be another solar system brimming with potential for life someday. Utilizing the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) researchers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have detected for the first time ever the complex organic molecules necessary to create life in a protoplanetary disk surrounding an infant star only a million years into its formation.

The study published this week in the journal Nature reveals that the million-year-old star, known as MWC 480 which is located 455 light-years away in the Taurus region, is surrounded by methyl cyanide and other carbon-based molecules necessary for the formation of life. Along with methyl cyanide the researchers identified the simpler molecular cousin, hydrogen cyanide, as well. In a region believed to be analogous to our very own Kuiper Belt, the complex carbon-based molecules were found in the icy cold outer reaches of the star's protoplanetary disk.

But in spite of the very cold origins of the carbon-based molecules, researchers believe that millions of years from now these complex organic building blocks may just interact with a planet like Earth, if they travel closer towards the star. Though currently the molecules remain in what for us would be a common comet or asteroid belt, researchers have learned that comets retain a pristine history of what was involved in the origins of our solar systems, and can even seed young planets like Earth with the water and organic molecules necessary for potential life.

"Studies of comets and asteroides show that the solar nebula that spawned our Sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds" lead author of the study, Karin Öberg says. "We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own."

What's even more interesting is that even though star MWC 480 is twice the mass of our Sun, Öberg noted that the organic molecules were found in similar concentrations as in our own solar system's comets. Though it may be millions of years before this particular solar system may have the opportunity to spawn life, the not-so-unique circumstances surrounding its formation give astronomers hope that life much like here on Earth may exist in other far-off reaches of the Universe. 

"From the study of exoplanets, we know our solar system isn't unique in having rocky planets and an abundance of water" Öberg says. "Now we know we're not unique in organic chemistry [either]."

"Once more, we have learned that we're not special. From a life in the universe point of view, this is great news."

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