Organic Molecules Found Floating in Space

A team of astronomers has detected organic molecules floating in space around 27,000 light years away.

Other organic molecules (glycoaldehyde) discovered by the radio telescope array, ALMA, in 2012. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calçada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE

Other organic molecules (glycoaldehyde) discovered by the radio telescope array, ALMA, in 2012. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. Calçada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE

Organic compounds, those that contain carbon, are known to form in space. Scientists have previously found biologically noteworthy molecules, such as amino acids, on asteroids. As you might know, amino acids are uniquely branched such that they can link together to form even more significant compounds such as proteins.

Though amino acids have been found on asteroids, they have never been found floating in space in the interstellar medium (ISM). The organic molecules normally detected in the ISM are straight compounds formed by links of carbon, a biologically impractical structure compared to the dynamic branching structure of amino acids.

A recent study published in the journal, Science, describes the detection of branched carbon compounds floating in the ISM. The team used a powerful array of radio telescopes called the Atacama Large Millimeter Array to scan the heavens for organic molecules.

They detected the molecules floating in an interstellar cloud of gas 27,000 light years away. Though they’re called ‘years’, 27,000 light years is the distance you would travel if you sped away from Earth at the speed of light for 27,000 years. The molecules found floating at such as a distance were ‘iso-propyl cyanide’.

Since iso-propyl cyanide is a branching molecule similar to amino acids, the researchers suggest it might be possible to find true amino acids floating in the ISM.

Since organic molecules are found both in asteroids and in the ISM, this might suggest that the molecules necessary for life are formed much earlier in a solar system’s life cycle. Organic molecules such as amino acids might be formed during the creation of stars before they get too hot.

The radio telescope array used for this finding is now fully functional (which it wasn’t at the time of the discovery), and so we can now sit back and wait for more star stuff to be found, maybe even some amino acids in the ISM.

Story source: ScienceAlert

Research paper: A. Belloche, R. T. Garrod, H. S. P. Muller, K. M. Menten. Detection of a branched alkyl molecule in the interstellar medium: iso-propyl cyanideScience, 2014; 345 (6204): 1584 DOI: