Scientists have found complex organic molecules in a planet-forming disk of gas, dust and ice swirling around a very young star, evidence that the building blocks for life may be common in the universe.
"We already knew that these disks are rich in water and simple organics. This is the first time we detect more complex organics," astronomer Karin Oberg, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Discovery News.
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Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory located in Chile, Oberg and colleagues found large amounts of methyl cyanide -- a complex, carbon-based molecule -- as well as simpler hydrogen cyanide molecules in the proto-planetary disk surrounding MWC 480, a very young star roughly twice the size of the sun located about 455 light-years away.
The molecules were found about 3 billion miles to 9 billion miles from the central star, which is distant by our solar system standards, but squarely in what would be a Kuiper Belt-like, comet-forming region for the larger MWC 480.
The scientists also noted that the ratios of these organics are similar to what is found in comets in the solar system.
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"It seems like the molecules needed to form the building blocks of life are common during planet formation. This is exciting news when thinking about the likelihood of life originating in other systems as well," Oberg said.
The research, which appears in this week's Nature, "demonstrates that proto-planetary disks are active engines of chemical synthesis, and that such environments are vital for building chemical complexity long before a planetary surface is created," astronomers Geoffrey Blake, with the California Institute of Technology, and Edwin Bergin, with the University of Michigan, write in a related commentary that also appears in Nature.
"The potentially prebiotic chemistry traced by asteroids and comets in the solar system is therefore replicated, at least in part, in other young planetary systems -- suggesting that planets are supplied with these life-bearing elements as they are born," Blake and Bergin write.
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The next step, says Oberg, is to survey different kinds of stars to see if they have similar types of organics.
"Obviously we're very biased by what we understand of life here on Earth," noted NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan. "But the building blocks (for carbon-based life) are not only all over our solar system, they're all over the galaxy, they're all over the universe. So given that the right building blocks are out there, given that there's water out there, that's what makes us really lean toward looking for life like it is here on Earth."