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April 21, 2024

Organic molecule detected in space

By TONY WU | March 14, 2013

For many years, scientists have speculated when and where life originated on Earth. Diverse theories range from cosmic deliveries of organic compounds to local synthesis of amino acids in the Primordial Soup of a young Earth. Some theories settle with a compromise between the two. The most popular idea suggests an Earth bombarded by comets and asteroids which brought building blocks of life onto the planet. This notion hinges on one important premise: that there are organic compounds in outer space.

As telescope technologies have vastly diversified since Galileo’s age, we have come to analyze specific wavelengths of light that characterize the various phenomena of space, like supernovas and solar activities.  Recently, scientists have developed a technique to analyze new type of data; namely, the chemical composition of space to detect organic molecules. The astrochemists — the combined profession of an astronomer and a chemist — uses radio frequencies to classify various molecules, which inherently have different atomic compositions and structures which alter radio waves that reach the telescope.

Astronomers turned their focus to one of the giant gas clouds near the center of the galaxy to analyze the identities of molecules that compose it. By analyzing the radio frequencies gathered by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, astrochemists determined that a molecule called cyanomethanimine is present in the cloud of gases.

Anthony Remijan, a researcher at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, explained that cyanomethanimine is a precursor of adenin, one of the four building blocks of DNA. Scientists believe that the detection of cyanomethanimine encourages the theory that there are organic compounds in space. In addition to cyanomethanimine, scientists also found a compound called ethanamine which is a key component in the formation of alanine, an amino acid that is crucial in genetic coding.

While the discovery of these intermediate molecules does not confirm the theory that extraterrestrial organic compounds are responsible for life on Earth, it is encouraging news. The evidence that there are ingredients in space point can potentially seed precursors of life to other extraterrestrial bodies. However, scientists are still not clear about the process through which these intermediates are converted into building blocks of life.

There are also other problems that the scientists encountered. The information gathered by the National Science Foundation is unfortunately not complete. Some of the spectral lines necessary in analysis were missing.

“We [need] to build a new instrument to find the last spectral line in the lab,” Remijan said.

The application and implication of this new technique serves to advance the current knowledge about the composition and formation of compounds in space.

“[Scientists] are also looking to find the intermediate steps in chemical reactions as well … since these reaction intermediate molecules would be very short lived on earth because of the pressure and temperature,” Remijan said. The data gathered by the telescopes are also important in the confirmation of theoretical chemical reactions in the laboratory.

Researchers have been performing reactions in the lab on very well known interstellar molecules and have been investigating the products that are yielded.

”Based on these experiments we test our theories against astronomical data and so far, this technique has proved very fruitful,” Remijan said. The understanding of these reactions is a key part in determining the origin of life and whether Earth is the only planet with life.

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