Organic Molecules Orbiting a Young Star

Researchers have discovered the building blocks of life floating in abundance around a young star.

Artist impression of the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480.

Artist impression of the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young star MWC 480.

In the same week as NASA predicted we will find alien life in 10 to 20 years, astronomers have made a huge discovery:  for the first time ever, complex organic molecules (a.k.a. the basic building blocks of life) have been found orbiting an alien star.

Researchers were happily surprised to find that the organic molecules floating around the star MWC 480 are thriving in higher quantities than those which are thought to have been present in our own early solar system.  This finding alone proves that our own solar system is not the only one to contain these complex molecules and suggest that the ingredients for primordial [i.e. evolutionary] soup may exist throughout the known universe.  The scientists involved made a cool video of MWC 480 here.

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The discovery was made by the researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led by astrochemist Karin Öberg.  They found three forms of cyanide: hydrogen cyanide (HCN), methyl cyanide (CH3CN), and cyanoacetylene (HC3N) wonderfully in the same concentrations as were present in comets which were orbiting our own Sun since before life got started on Earth.

“We know that the solar system isn’t unique in its number of planets or abundance of water,” Öberg stated. “Now we know that we’re not unique in organic chemistry. From a life in the universe point of view, this is great news.”

MWC 480 located in the star-forming region of Taurus, is pretty much a newborn at only a million years old.  (Plus 455 light-years away.)  However, it is about twice as massive as the Sun and shines about ten times brighter.  And while the disk of matter is floating around the star, we have yet to detect any sure signs of planetary formation.

Within the material, there is enough methyl cyanide alone to fill all of the oceans on Earth!  Carbon based molecules such as these cyanides are very volatile, burning away at high temperatures.  The thing about them which makes them exciting is that the carbon-nitrogen bonds are essential to forming amino acids which in turn are that which become proteins.

This image shows the sky around the young star MWC 480.

This image shows the sky around the young star MWC 480.

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