Though not a planet, yet, IRS 48 is worth spending a lot of telescope time to look at. A “protoplanetary” disc surrounding the infant star has a whole bunch of a “precursor molecules” used to build “large organic molecules,” ones “potentially leading to the formation of some form of life.” They found it in a cashew-shaped trap where tiny grains of dust gather.
Signs of life in deep space
Deep in interstellar space, a fairly young star around 444 light years away gives astronomers something to talk about around the break room.
It provided one team of observers from the Netherlands reason to believe they found “what may be the precursor to life itself.” They were lucky enough to draw some time at the ALMA Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile.
What they discovered using the sensitive instruments is “the largest molecule ever found in a planet-forming disc around a star.”
It’s special because the compound “could be a precursor to large organic molecules, potentially leading to the formation of some form of life.” They couldn’t wait until their results came out in the March edition of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
“It is really exciting,” Alice Booth relates, “to finally detect these larger molecules in discs.” She’s a researcher at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and co-author of the study.
“For a while we thought it might not be possible to observe them.” Persistence and determination paid off. The biggest thing it shows is that life in general should be really common throughout the universe.
Amino acids and sugars
Swirling around IRS 48, located in the constellation Ophiuchus, is a disc shaped cloud of protoplanetary “gas particles and swirls of dust that form in unison with the birth of a star.”
It turns out that a cashew shaped region on the south of the formation is trapping the heavier dust particles, while the gas and smaller dust grains form the rest of the ring-shaped disc. The life growing particles are in the dust trap which are destined to “fuse” and “grow into larger objects like comets, asteroids, and potentially even planets.”
As shown by images the team collected, different varieties of complex organic molecules have been spotted. Formaldehyde (orange), methanol (green) and dimethyl ether (blue). Alien life is a lot more plausible knowing how easy these molecules form spontaneously.
“From these results, we can learn more about the origin of life on our planet and therefore get a better idea of the potential for life in other planetary systems,” Nashanty Brunken, a graduate student at Leiden Observatory, and lead author of the study, explains. “It is very exciting to see how these findings fit into the bigger picture.”
Dimethyl ether is the important stuff. When the team went back and looked again, they found even more of it lurking in the disc. It’s composed of nine atoms, “making it the largest molecule ever detected in a planet-forming disc.” Organic life uses it to make things like amino acids and sugars.
Dimethyl ether has been seen lots of times in star forming clouds but the thing which has all the gossip going is finding it in a cooler planet forming disc. It means the building blocks of organic life could be stacked right into the planet itself during the most embryonic formation stages.