Astronomers have found the first signs of the complex, carbon-based molecules that make life possible on Earth in a protoplanetary disk. It is the region where cosmic building blocks gather to create planets in a brand-new star system.
Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts have discovered the presence of complex organic molecules, the building blocks of life, in an infant star system for the first time ever.
Karin Oberg, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, and the lead author of the study, said, “Studies of comets and asteroids show that the solar nebula that spawned our Sun and planets was rich in water and complex organic compounds. We now have evidence that this same chemistry exists elsewhere in the universe, in regions that could form solar systems not unlike our own.”
This discovery, made with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), revealed that the protoplanetary disk surrounding the million-year-old star MWC 480 was brimming with methyl cyanide (CH3CN), a complex carbon-based molecule.
The astronomers also found its simpler cousin hydrogen cyanide (HCN) in the cold outer reaches of the star’s newly formed disk, in a region that astronomers believe was analogous to the Kuiper Belt, the realm of icy planetesimals and comets beyond Neptune.
The astronomers stated that the molecules ALMA detected are much more abundant than would be found in interstellar clouds. According to them, there’s enough methyl cyanide around MWC 480 to fill all of Earth’s oceans. This tells astronomers that protoplanetary disks are very efficient at forming complex organic molecules and that they are able to form them on a relatively fast timescale.
“We’re finding that we’re not that special. Other young solar systems in the making are also rich in the same volatiles, and in similar proportions,” added Oberg.
The findings were published in the Nature journal.