August 29, 2012
Sugar Molecules Found Around Distant Young Star
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Most would assume that sugar is an essential part of life, but did you know it is actually considered a building block? Well, astronomers have now found these sweet organic molecules around a distant star.
The finding reported in the Astrophysical Journal Letters proves that the building blocks of life were already present during planet formation.
Astronomers observed the distant star using the new large international telescope, Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile. This telescope can zoom in and study the details of newly formed stars and their rotating discs.
"In the protoplanetary disk of gas and dust surrounding the young, newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde molecules, which are a simple form of sugar," astrophysicist Jes JÃ¸rgensen, Associate Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, said. "It is one of the building blocks in the process that leads to the formation of RNA and the first step in the direction of biology."
At first, the gas and dust cloud is extremely cold, with temperatures at about -459 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, only simple gases like carbon monoxide and methane settle on particles of dust and turn to ice at this stage.
As the volatile gases bond together, they help to form more complex molecules inside the gas and dust cloud, according to JÃ¸rgensen.
Once the star has been formed in the middle of the gas and dust cloud, it emits heat, and the inner parts of the rotating cloud that surround the star is heated to room temperature. After this process, the molecules on the particles of dust evaporate to gas.
This gas is emitting radiation as radio waves at low frequencies, which astronomers are able to observe by using the ALMA telescope. The star sits just 400 light years away from Earth, so new telescopes with high resolution are able to help scientists depict these details.
Astronomers also saw signs of a number of other complex organic materials on the star, including ethylene-glycol, methyl formate and ethanol.
"The complex molecules in the cloud surrounding the newly formed star tell us that the building blocks of life may be among the first formed," JÃ¸rgensen said in the press release. "One of the big questions is whether it is common that these organic molecules are formed so early in the star and planet formation process — and how complex they can become before they are incorporated into new planets."
He said this could tell scientists about the possibility that extraterrestrial life might be able to be found in other places in the universe.
Image 2 (below): Sugar molecules in the gas surrounding a young Sun-like star. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/L. CalÃ§ada (ESO) & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team