The dust and gas where planets form have been mapped in extraordinary detail around five nearby young stars – and astronomers have found organic molecules that are involved in the emergence of life on Earth.
The results suggest that the basic chemical conditions that led to life on Earth may exist more widely across the Milky Way, according to Dr John Ilee, a researcher at the University of Leeds who is leading a project called Molecules with ALMA at Planet. -forming Scales (PLANS).
The team from 16 universities around the world used the 60 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio observatory in Chile to map in detail the chemical composition of protoplanetary disks, just like the one that would once have surrounded the young Sun. âAbout five nearby young stars at high resolution.
The outstanding results will appear in a special edition of the The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.
âOne of the really exciting things we’ve seen is that the discs forming the planets around these five young stars are factories of a special class of organic molecules called nitriles, who are involved in the origins of life here on Earth, âsaid Karin Ãberg, astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) and senior researcher for MAPS.
ALMA was able to discern telltale spectral âfingerprintsâ – a specific wavelength of light – of every molecule in protoplanetary disks around stars (called IM Lup, GM Aur, AS 209, HD 163296 and MWC 480). All located between 300 and 500 light years from Earth, planets seem to form around them.
The chemical composition or molecules in these disks can impact the planets themselves, including:
- how and where the planets are formed.
- the chemical composition of the planets.
- if these planets have the necessary organic makeup to support life.
“The key result of this work shows that the same ingredients necessary for the seeding of life on our planet are also found around other stars,” said Dr Catherine Walsh of the School of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Leeds. âIt is possible that the molecules needed to start life on planets are readily available in all planet-forming environments. ”
However, scientists have also seen more complex organic molecules, including cyanoacetylene (HC3N), acetonitrile (CH3CN), and cyclopropenylidene (vs-C3H2) âand in large numbers.
âWe found more large organic molecules than expected, a factor of 10 to 100 more, located in internal disks across the solar system, and their chemistry appears to be similar to that of comets in the solar system,â said Ilee.
This is the first time that astronomers have been able to search for these molecules in the innermost regions of these disks at scales similar in size to those of the solar system.
“Laboratory and theoretical studies have suggested that these molecules are the ‘raw ingredients’ to build molecules which are essential components of biological chemistry on Earth, creating sugars, amino acids and even the components of ribonucleic acid. (RNA) under the right conditions. ”
This is important because large organic molecules are “the stepping stones between simpler carbon-based molecules such as carbon monoxide, which are found in abundance in space, and the more complex molecules needed to create and maintain life, âsaid Ilee.
Is there life somewhere? All we can say is that our own solar system is not unique. As this historical study shows, there are likely many other planetary systems around other stars that contain chemical ingredients that are the same or similar to our solar system, and all likely have the building blocks of life.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.